Enron Corporation

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Enron scandal

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Enron Corporation's logo.

The Enron scandal was a financial scandal involving Enron Corporation (former NYSE ticker symbol: ENE) and its accounting firm Arthur Andersen, that was revealed in late 2001. After a series of revelations involving irregular accounting procedures conducted throughout the 1990s, Enron was on the verge of bankruptcy by November of 2001. A white knight rescue attempt by a similar, smaller energy company, Dynegy, was not viable. Enron filed for bankruptcy on December 2, 2001.

As the scandal was revealed, Enron shares dropped from over US$90.00 to less than 50¢. Enron's plunge occurred after revelations that much of its profits and revenue were the result of deals with special purpose entities (limited partnerships which it controlled). The result was that many of Enron's debts and the losses that it suffered were not reported in its financial statements.

In addition, the scandal caused the dissolution of Arthur Anderson, which at the time was one of the five largest accounting firms in the world.

"At the beginning of 2001, the Enron Corporation, the world's dominant energy trader, appeared unstoppable. The company's decade-long effort to persuade lawmakers to deregulate electricity markets had succeeded from California to New York. Its ties to the Bush administration assured that its views would be heard in Washington. Its sales, profits and stock were soaring. "
—A. Berenson and R. A. Oppel Jr.The New York Times, Oct 28, 2001.[1]

In the early 1990s the Congress of the United States of America passed legislation deregulating the sale of electricity. It had done the same for natural gas some years earlier. The resulting energy markets made it possible for companies like Enron to thrive, while the resultant price volatility was often bemoaned by producers and local governments.[2] Strong lobbying on the part of Enron and others, however, kept the system in place.[3][4]

Enron had created offshore entities, units which may be used for planning and avoidance of taxes, raising the profitability of a business. The names of these SPEs, or special purpose entities, were Bob West Treasure, Jedi and Hawaii [2]. This provided ownership and management with full freedom of currency movement, and full anonymity, that would keep losses the company was taking off of the balance sheets. These entities made Enron look more profitable than it actually was, and created a dangerous spiral in which each quarter, corporate officers would have to perform more and more contorted financial deception to create the illusion of billions in profits while the company was actually losing money. This practice drove up their stock price to new levels, at which point the executives began to work on insider information and trade millions of dollars worth of Enron stock. The executives and insiders at Enron knew about the offshore accounts that were hiding losses for the company; however, the investors knew nothing of this. Chief Officer Andrew Fastow led the team which created the off-books companies, and manipulated the deals to provide himself, his family, and his friends with hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed revenue, at the expense of the corporation he worked for and its stockholders.

In 1999, Enron launched EnronOnline, an Internet-based trading operation, which was used by virtually every energy company in the United States. President and chief operating officer Jeffrey Skilling began advocating a novel idea: the company did not really need any "assets." By pushing the company's aggressive investment strategy, he helped make Enron the biggest wholesaler of gas and electricity, with $27 billion traded in a quarter. The firm's figures, however, had to be accepted at face value. Under Skilling, Enron adopted mark to market accounting, in which anticipated future profits from any deal were tabulated as if real today. Thus, Enron could record gains from what over time might turn out losses, as the company's fiscal health became secondary to manipulating its stock price on Wall Street during the Tech boom. But when a company's success is measured by agreeable financial statements emerging from a black box, a term Skilling himself admitted, actual balance sheets prove inconvenient. Indeed, Enron's unscrupulous actions were often gambles to keep the deception going and so push up the stock price, which was posted daily in the company elevator. An advancing number meant a continued infusion of investor capital on which debt-ridden Enron in large part subsisted. Its fall would collapse the house of cards. Under pressure to maintain the illusion, Skilling verbally attacked Wall Street Analyst Richard Grubman[5], who questioned Enron's unusual accounting practice during a recorded conference call. When Grubman complained that Enron was the only company that could not release a balance sheet along with its earnings statements, Skilling replied "Well, thank you very much, we appreciate that . . . asshole." Though the comment was met with dismay and astonishment by press and public, it became an inside joke among many Enron employees, mocking Grubman for his perceived meddling rather than Skilling's lack of tact.[6]

By the late 1990s Enron's stock was trading for $80-90 per share, and few seemed to concern themselves with the opacity of the company's financial disclosures. In mid July 2001, Enron reported earnings of $50.1 billion, almost triple year-to-date, beating analysts' estimates by 3 cents a share.[7] Despite this, Enron's profit margin had stayed at a modest average of about 2.1%, and its share price had dropped by over 30% since the same quarter of 2000.[8]

However, concerns were mounting. Enron had recently faced several serious operational challenges, namely logistical difficulties in running a new broadband communications trading unit, constructing the Dabhol Power project, a large power plant in India, and criticism of the company for the role it allegedly had played in the power crisis of California in 2000-2001.

[edit] Timeline of Enron's downfall

Main article: Timeline of the Enron scandal

August 14, 2001, Jeffrey Skilling, the chief executive of Enron, a former energy consultant at McKinsey & Company who joined Enron in 1990, announced he was resigning his position after only six months.

"[T]he reasons for leaving the business are personal," said Skilling at the time, "but I'd just as soon keep that private."[9] Observers noted that in the months leading up to his exit, Skilling had sold at minimum 450,000 shares of Enron at a value of around $33 million (though he still owned over a million shares at the date of his departure).[10] Nevertheless, Kenneth Lay, the chairman at Enron, reassured analysts by affirming that there was "[a]bsolutely no accounting issue, no trading issue, no reserve issue, no previously unknown problem issues" prompting the departure. He further assured stunned market watchers that there would be "no change in the performance or outlook of the company going forward" from Skilling's departure.[11] Lay announced he himself would re-assume the position of chief executive.

The next day, however, Skilling admitted that a very significant reason for his departure was Enron's faltering price in the stock market.[12] The columnist Paul Krugman, writing in the NY Times, asserted that Enron was an illustration of the consequences that occur from the deregulation and commodification of things such as energy.[13] A few days later, in a letter to the editor, Kenneth Lay defended Enron and the philosophy behind the company:

The broader goal of [Krugman's] latest attack on Enron appears to be to discredit the free-market system, a system that entrusts people to make choices and enjoy the fruits of their labor, skill, intellect and heart. He would apparently rely on a system of monopolies controlled or sponsored by government to make choices for people. We disagree, finding ourselves less trusting of the integrity and good faith of such institutions and their leaders.

The example Mr. Krugman cites of "financialization" run amok (the electricity market in California) is the product of exactly his kind of system, with active government intervention at every step. Indeed, the only winners in the California fiasco were the government-owned utilities of Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The disaster that squandered the wealth of California was born of regulation by the few, not by markets of the many. [14]

[edit] Investors begin to worry

Something is rotten with the state of Enron.
The New York Times, Sept 9, 2001.[15]

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