Enron dives from the seventh largest US company to bankruptcy in less than a year in this tale told chronologically. The emphasis is on human drama, from suicide to 20,000 people sacked: the personalities of Ken Lay (with Falwellesque rectitude), Jeff Skilling (he of big ideas), Lou Pai (gone with $250 M), and Andy Fastow (the dark prince) dominate. Along the way, we watch Enron game California's deregulated electricity market, get a free pass from Arthur Andersen (which okays the dubious mark-to-market accounting), use greed to manipulate banks and brokerages (Merrill Lynch fires the analyst who questions Enron's rise), and hear from both Presidents Bush what great guys these are.Written by
Among the protesters who disrupt the meeting with Jeff Skilling at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club is Marla Ruzicka. The former Global Exchange activist founded CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict), which worked to help the victims of the war in Iraq. She died in Iraq on April 16, 2005, the victim of a suicide bombing. See more »
Oh I can't help myself. You know what the difference between the state of California and Titanic? And this is being webcast, and I know I'm going to regret this - at least when the Titanic went down, the lights were on.
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Love for Sale
Written by Cole Porter
WB Music Corp.
Performed by Julie London
Courtesy of Liberty Records
By arrangement with EMI Film & TV Music Licensing See more »
The biggest pyramid of them all
How did Enron become the world's largest corporate bankruptcy? A culture of greed, and fraud, coupled with an accounting system ripe for abuse, was part of it. But one also needs to understand the way that markets work (ironically, since Enron claimed to know this better than anyone else). The rise in Enron's share price had all the hallmarks of a classic pyramid scheme, whereby, if you claim to be making enough money, you can get away without proving it, because investors all want in, not out. Meanwhile, Enron bankrolled its regulators with the money it did have to stop them asking about the money it didn't. Finally, when all this was exposed, the firm was worthless, even though there had been at least some successful businesses within it, because, fundamentally, like all businesses, Enron has sold confidence and now this commodity was in very short supply; but Chief Executive Jeff Skilling's claim that "it was a classic run on the bank" is disingenuous to say the least, given that the real money that Enron did (at one time) make was earned through deliberately operating with very low reserves. 'The Smartest Guys in the Room' tells some of the story of Enron's collapse: and it's a compelling tale, although I found the use of background music rather annoying (the story is divided up into titled sections, with each section being the name of a song, which feels rather heavy-handed and obvious). But is gives a good flavour of what went on at Enron, although it doesn't go into the full details of the crooked financial transactions, and (like all the books I have read on the same subject) doesn't manage to answer the killer questions: what were, year-on-year, Enron's real profits and losses? and who knew what, when? Probably, these are impossible questions to answer: the picture that emerges is of a company where the bosses didn't want to know, everybody's job was to keep their superior happy and rich, and if you could do this, they wouldn't ask how you had managed it (or how rich you had made yourself in the process); a happy conspiracy until, eventually and inevitably, the money ran out. And as I said before, the irony is that this company that tried and failed to buck the markets was itself the high priest of market capitalism. If Enron's failure at least induces a dose of scepticism about the self-proclaimed (and invariably loaded) champions of market economics, some good at least will have emerged from what is otherwise a sorry tale.
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