on June 12, 2004
I chose the above title quote from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to highlight my review. The authors provide a biography of many of the Enron players that lets us know what these guys were all about at their core. For example, Jeff Skilling spent almost all his after-school time working at a television station. Yet, he went to college without a dime because he blew all his pay in the stock market-buying stocks on margin. Never mind though because he got an impressive academic scholarship anyway because of his "brilliance." The authors provide other telling stories about the other major players. Ken Lay, the Baptist preacher's boy who preached exemplary corporate values, had an affair with his secretary, and later divorced his first wife to marry her. Yes, this is the same lady who went on television complaining about being broke while her family still owned millions of dollars in real estate. Lay's number two guy-not Skilling-who shacked up with a different Ken Lay secretary at Enron, costing himself annointment as Lay's successor. By the way, this guy now is a billionaire. Having that affair with Lay's secretary, later marrying her, was the smartest thing he ever did because he left Enron to found his own high-flying energy company. Rebecca Mark got a leg up from another Enron mentor by having a tempestous affair with him. The stories like this go on and on.
The authors provide far more detail about company history and the accounting conspiracies that brought it down. As a professional accountant, I am even more convinced now that Arthur Andersen deserved to fail for approving many of the tricks that Enron used to book fictitious profits. The authors point out that near the end, nearly 85% of Enron's total debt wasn't on their books, but "lay" in off balance sheet special purpose entities. The auditors couldn't understand the meaning of the standard sentence in an audit report that states that the financial statements "present fairly the financial condition and operations of Enron in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles." They over emphasized generally accepted accounting principles and ignored the term "present fairly." Good riddance to them.
The authors certainly are not admirers of Skilling, Fastow, or most of the other Enron players. For example they say of Skilling in their Epilogue, "He does not seem to have any remorse about his own actions, any sense that he hired the wrong people, got into the wrong businesses, or emphasized the wrong values. The fault, in his view, lies in a world that did not and will not appreciate the sheer newness of what Enron was trying to do." At the end, Jesse Jackson-yes that Jesse-held prayer meetings in the hall to comfort the afflicted who suddenly realized they needed forgiveness. Skilling didn't attend. I hope Jesse says a few prayers to protect Jeff while he's in prison. He'll need them, as well as a lifetime supply of "soap on a rope."
Certain Enron principals flew to their bankruptcy hearing in their mega-bucks Gulfstream 5 executive jet and stayed at the plush Four Seasons in Manhattan. As one of the offending executives said, "Maybe we should have flown on Southwest and stayed at the Ramada." In short, yes.
on May 24, 2004
Excellent journalism and very well articulated research from McLean and Elkind make this a gripping read for anyone who wants to understand the forces that drive corporate greed. Banks, rating agencies, lawyers and accountants are not spared in what is a scathing criticism of profitability over ethics and plain common sense. What disapponted me, however, was the authors' obvious decision to skim over the political elements of the whole scandal. Kenneth Lay was one of the single largest individual contributors to the Bush campaign in 2000 and also made available corporate resources, such as company jets, on numerous occasions. Dick Cheney had secret meetings with company executives at a time that the wheels were beginning to fall off and it is impossible to believe that this was all innocuous, although in the rare instances that the authors refer to such events, they will have you believe that this was the case. Time will hopefully still reveal more about the murky political dealings of Enron, but it is a crying shame that this otherwise very well written book is not a place where you will learn anything at all about that dimension, despite there being no shortage of facts to be found elsewhere in the public domain.
on May 2, 2004
Enron was the largest corporate bankruptcy to date. Just a year earlier it was a 70-billion dollar company and the most respected company in the energy field. By the end of 2001 Chuck Watson of Dynegy said he wouldn't take it if it were free. What happened? How could such a large and powerful conglomerate, in which analysts hyped right to the bitter end, fall so fast. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind take the reader from the beginning of Enron's rise to the colossal fall.
From the beginning Enron was determined to rewrite the "rules" of how the business of energy was done around the world. Ken Lay, the founder of Enron, learned the natural gas business from his early days at Florida Gas and then Transco Energy. In the early 1980's gas prices were largely regulated by the federal government. This led to gas shortages when prices were too low and oversupply when the government hiked prices. Distributors would try to lock into long-term contracts called "take or pay" to protect themselves from future shortages. These contracts were bad from the pipeline owner's point of view because they had to pay the higher rates even if lower rates were available. Lay saw a way out of this dilemma, however. He set up a fledgling spot market for natural gas. The producers who let Transco out of these long-term contracts could sell directly to their customers, paying Transco to move the gas. Lay was a hero and it would propel him toward his vision of a deregulated gas world in which customers would always have the gas they need at the best price.
When Ken Lay created Enron he had a different view of energy than anyone else in the business. When energy was deregulated in the late 19080's prices plunged. Money wasn't being made in oil; it was being made in trading oil. This was Lay's grand vision. In the words of the authors:"Oil trading was about trading, not about oil." The senior executives didn't know much about trading but as long as it made money no one cared. Oil trading was a way of promising to deliver oil in the future while locking in the price today.
From its earliest days Enron struggled to survive. Lay had a vision of the future but he needed someone to show him the way. Enter Jeff Skilling. To Skilling natural gas wasn't about energy; it was about supply and demand. Whenever there was too much supply or too much demand there was money to be made. Instead of long-term contracts between suppliers and customers Skilling envisioned Enron acting as an energy bank. They would purchase gas from producers at one price and sell it to customers at a higher price. Enron would profit from the exchange and the customer would always be able to get gas. All Enron needed to do was to have matching customers for every contract to buy natural gas. He would revolutionize the oil industry. He never cared for the old oil executives; he wanted smart Harvard graduates under him. It didn't matter to Skilling if they never worked in the industry before; they would figure it out.
The problems with Enron can be traced back to these early days. The people involved had great ideas but were poor in their ability to manage and carry them out. Those that could were treated as second class citizens by Enron management. They rewarded the people with the best ideas. It didn't matter if their grandiose plans never made any money. It would become the culture at Enron-a corporation built on vision but near-sighted on detail.
The book is a long and difficult 414 pages. The deals and machinations of Enron's senior management are difficult and complex. The Smartest Guys in the Room is about these deals and not about the people. We know very little about how people truly felt about Enron through its rise and fall but we know a great deal about the gory details. For those with some accounting background it is a fascinating story. For the general reader it probably will be a bit bewildering
on April 19, 2004
More than any other company, Enron has become synonymous with the outrageous levels of corporate greed and hubris that lie at the root of our economic woes. But the web of accounting procedures, puffed up-revenue, and complex derivatives trading was not a deliberate scheme to defraud investors; it happened through a pattern of activity that resulted from the obsession of keeping the stock price rising at any cost. This is the most thorough examination of Enron to date, based on hundreds of interviews and the examination of thousands of documents over a year and a half by two Fortune magazine reporters. Ultimately, this is a story about the personal shortcomings of the individual players, epitomized by Jeffery Skilling, the man who would rise briefly to CEO and then resign during the chaotic months before Enron's collapse. With a brilliant intelligence matched by an enormous ego, he could never admit, even to himself, that something was terribly wrong with the company he helped create. The Enron death spiral took on a life of its own, with many of the worst sins committed by employees who believed they were simply doing what they were told. Laying extensive groundwork, the authors ably convey the multidimensional nature of this story
on April 9, 2004
"The Smartest Guys in the Room" is very well written, with great biographical backgrounds and telling anecdotes that will give you everything you should know and then some about the major players whose greed and egos led to their demise and Enron's collapse like a classic greek tragedy. McLean and Elkind were able to translate Faustow's complex special purpose entities into laymen's terms. The Enron story also shows the shocking lack of moral character of Arthur Anderson and the investment banks who enabled and profited by Enrons obscene techniques of literally making up its numbers and "earnings". This book was an eye-opener for me. I had never heard of "mark to marketing" accounting which allowed (and perhaps still allows) corporations to book "earnings" now on assumed future income, that it has not received and might never receive. It makes you completely mistrustful of corporate quarterly earnings reports, which Enron and others so easily manipulate. There should be a lot more criminal prosecutions, not just of the Enron people who profited by sham earnings statements, but also JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, and Citibank executives who enabled and profited by the Enron shenanigans. The wall street analysts who pumped up Enron stock with near complete ignorance of Enron's actual business should also be prosecuted for criminal impersonation-that is pretending to be "analysts". There was certainly enough unanswered questions in Enron's own public filings to raise 100 red flags--
There are a lot more reforms that should be made-particularly on the accounting end, to force corporate disclosure to somehow truly explain a company's actual cash, actual earnings and actual debt and obligations. I will never assume that a company's alleged "earnings" disclosure statements means the company actually has real cash from current revenue,and that its debt/obligation disclosure is remotely truthful.
Unfortunately, the Enron story is all to familiar- Appearances are more important than reality in the world of
corporate governance and finance-- After all, We have a President who brags about Values who should have been prosecuted for inside trading on His Harkness Energy stock sales years ago- and he gets a pass- I'm sure a lot of other big shots at the investment banks who helped Enron scam investors in Enron stock will also get pass
This book will and/or should get you mad--yet i'm not particulary sympathetic to Enron's former employees, many, if not most of whom, had to be aware that this company could not lose so much real money and spend so much real money if it was making real money in an honest way--- and its seems like guys like Pai and most of his associates will probably keep their ill gotten gains
There will be other Enrons as long as Wall Street trades on
"virtual" earnings and undistributed earnings-hopefully "mark
to marketing" accounting and its accounting brethren will be declared illegal, but that would probably be a naive hope
I would highly recommend this book, just to see how dumb and how amoral the smartest guys in the room were and often still are ---- (...) the question may be asked , how could such smart men (and women)be so stupid ......
on March 26, 2004
There's blame galore to go around for the spectacular downfall of Enron Corp in that sober year of 2001. Accountants, rating agencies, regulators, lawyers, consultants, bankers--and these are just the bad actors outside the corporation. Look inside, where Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind treat their readers to a thorough journalistic scouring, and the smell of the rot almost wafts off the pages.
The authors rightly spend the vast majority of the book examining the personalities and circumstances that allowed the company to become what it was at the end of its life. Mix a potion that's one part hardscrabble Harvard MBAs, one part energy deregulation, and one part hysterical bull market, and you've got a financial molotov cocktail. Sadly, as we all know now, it was largely the little guy who paid the price for all the hubris of the players in this story, a fact that tends to get lost in the authors' painstaking recreation of the most complicated shell game in history.
But the story of Enron's fallout could provide the material for a whole other book. In this one we get the tale of the players, people like Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Rebecca Mark and Andy Fastow, all filled with an equal mix of remarkable brilliance and fatal arrogance. All are indicted by these authors as rabid players in a game they made up themselves, deeming themselves beyond the petty world of rules and regulation. But coming in for equal excoriation is the system itself, the web of enablement and intimidation that allowed Andy Fastow to quietly hammer together the company's coffin in the form of a maze of phantom accounting entities designed to prop of the appearance of the corpse inside. The most unnerving theme the book treats indirectly is the effect of mass psychology--the way exceptional personalities distort and transform reality on a systemic scale. And it offers little in the way of how something like this could ever be prevented in the future.
One word of warning for people not acquainted with basic finance: this is a complicated story, about erstwhile geniuses in the arcane use of financial products and regulatory loopholes. Though it's enjoyable even if one can't follow every detour down each accounting scheme, some knowledge of Wall Street and its workings seems necessary to understand the implications of the book overall. Given the fact that most experts didn't understand what went on here, the authors do their best to keep things as simple as possible, often using helpful metaphors and simple summations after a few pages of analysis, but they have no choice but to assume a level of sophistication among their readers.
Which leads to one gripe. In "The Smartest Guys In the Room" not a single institution or individual player involved with Enron escapes the authors' finger-pointing notice, with but one exception. Where were the journalists in all this? Why did short-sellers have to be the ones to ask all the tough questions? Bethany Mclean should take understandable pride in being the first one to pry the door open on Enron's malfeasance, but she was just a little late. One would think that with the mass of financial journalists on CNBC, the Journal, the Times, etc., that just one would have bucked the collective cheering squad and dug deeper into what this supposedly invincible company was up to. But of course, this was the bull market. A time when everyone was exuberant when they should have been scared.
on March 5, 2004
Although much of what is disclosed here could have been gleaned from the WSJ and other financial publications during Enron's downfall, this is very well-organized and insightful play-by-play analysis of Enron's rise and subsequent fall to earth.
Many of the most interesting sequences involve quotes from former insiders and the chapter that discusses Wall Street's compliance and subsidy of Enron's misdeeds.
There was so much financial wrong-doing going on in the markets those days, that few people resisted the urge to see Enron for the fraud that it was. Investment bankers, auditors, the nation's best credit agencies and even the SEC were all privy to Enron's wild machinations and few of those involved ever called them on it.
The authors do a great job of developing the characters, mainly: Lay, Skilling, Mark, Fastow, Kopper, Pai and Baxter. They also do well describing the arrogance and hubris of the managers, traders and deal makers. These people thought they were smarter and craftier that everyone. In the end, it was their arrogance that cemented their destruction.
on January 9, 2004
We've all probably had our fill of the sickening sagas of one corporate scandal after another. But The Smartest Guys in the Room is definitely worth the time. It reads like a thriller. The characters seem like they are out of a novel, and the story, when revealed in its putrid detail, reads like a thriller. This a very accessible read. There are a few tough bits where accounting shenanigans are described, but the authors do a good job of explaining everything. A whole new layer of the scandal is revealed here, one that would only be uncovered by a person reading countless news stories over a two year period. Other than the obvious story line of a multi billion dollar company gone bad, there is an undercurrent here--the amazing tale of how long the Enron lies, half truths, manipulation and subterfuge went undetected by the SEC, the big brokerage houses and the banks. Stories of the banks forking over a billion here, a billion there, brazenly encouraging and enabling Enron to feed the beast of its addiction to accounting tricks, corporate jets and hundreds of millions of stock options drained off by shady executive suite characters. Over and above being a great read, this is will also serve as an introduction to the characters who you will read about who will go to jail over the nest couple of years. News stories won't provide the depth of insight into their actions and character--this book will.
on January 9, 2004
Bethany McLean is the logical writer to pen a lengthy book detailing the tragedies of Enron, and how they impacted on the nation's economy, not to mention reeking tragedy in the lives of those who worked there in innocent circumstances. As someone born and raised in California I was naturally interested in the energy crisis perpetrated in the Golden State by Enron policies designed to achieve total control.
McLean was the writer whose Fortune article questioned the value of Enron during its artificially inflated boom period. This was happening at a time when mountains were being moved to maintain stock at a high level which was beyond bloating, but entered into the realm of the highest scale of fraud. When the California tragedy surfaced it was none other than former Halliburton CEO and current vice president, Dick Cheney, who exclaimed that the California energy crisis revealed the need of developing more independent energy sources, i.e. drilling in Alaska. McLean and fellow Fortune writer Peter Elkind demonstrate that the tragedy was internally induced, and not a product of external circumstances, as Cheney and other Bush administration figures asserted.
A massive effort such as that unleashed by the Fortune team was necessary to even scratch the surface in a string of machinations which are sought to be performed in the most complex way to create a huge smokescreen and avoid detection. From both an economic and sociological standpoint the mammoth undertaking of the authors proves that such efforts on the part of top management at companies like Enron will ultimately collapse like a house of cards.
As well as providing the essential factual details on how the Enron brigade unleashed their corrupt trickery, McLean and Elkind create visible portraits of the main characters involved in this history of swindles perpetrated on an unsuspecting American public. Ken Lay, referred to by George W. Bush as "Kenny boy", is revealed as a feel good CEO who purposely sees and hears no evil, while Skilling and Fastow are repesented as anything but, operating as consummate forces of power maniacal greed with total control the object that never departs from their corporate radar screens.
With this much information revealed abaout the Enron demolition crew as vigilant forces in such a sleazy and rapacious enterprise, the question arises as to how much Enron will figure in the presidential campaign. McLean and Elkind provide a wealth of material from which a constructive national debate could be launched. Let this effort begin!
on January 1, 2004
This book scared the hell out of me. With the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, etc., one has to ask - "Where Else?"
While it focuses on the people and personalities directing Enron, the book very rightly points out that this Ponzi-Scheme of a company could never have existed if not for the complicity, corruption and willful ignorance of individuals and organizations who were supposed to act as checks and balances. Simply put, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling & Andrew Fastow were able to bully, buy or dupe the following:
1. The Enron Board, who questioned almost nothing.
2. Arthur Andersen, who was corrupted by large consulting fees, and the "glamor" that was Enron.
3. Wall Street Equity Analysts, who were long ago compromised.
4. Large commercial banks, who allowed themselves to be played like violins by Fastow.
5. The business press, who with rare exception, acted as cheerleaders for Enron.
6. Debt-Rating agencies such as Moody's and S&P for shallow due dilligence.
Make no mistake, this is a horror story. So much loss and pain due to extremely bright folks with no moral compass! Throughout the book, I found myself asking "can an organization this unethical, cutthroat and STUPID have really existed?" I didn't know if I should be outraged or horribly depressed (BOTH!). If I had a critisim of the book, it would be that it should have contained an appendix that illustrated the financial position (on-balance sheet & total) to help readers fully comprehend the magnitude of what went on.
I recommend this book to anyone who owns more than $10 in stock.