In the Titanic, the captain went down with the ship. And Enron looks to me like the captain first gave himself and his friends a bonus, then lowered himself and the top folks down the lifeboat and then hollered up and said, ‘By the way, everything is going to be just fine.’
When the House of Common’s select committee accused Rupert Murdoch of ‘wilful blindness’ during the hacking inquisition, they were referring the analysis of the collapse of Enron; the biggest act of corporate irresponsibility in the history of late capitalism.
Watching ‘The Smartest Guys in The Room’ again, I have been struck by parallels with News International, so it was no surprise that the politicians also made the connection. News International created a culture of irresponsibility; a culture where pursuit of stories/ money is more important than anything else. In the case of Enron, this delusion brought down one of the biggest power companies in the world, destroyed one of the oldest accounting firms in the world (Arthur Anderson) and continues to ruin the lives of people who worked for them and their investors.
The genius of the documentary is to make accountancy seem interesting and the incomprehensible worlds of high finance seem accessible. We are informed early in the drama that this is the story of human failing and the relationship of power and responsibility. Enron’s Achilles heel was the acceptance of mark-to-marketing accounting which allowed it to bank future profits even if they never appeared. The value of the company was over-stated, “a house of cards, built on a volcano”, and headed by Jeffery Skilling who followed folly-after-folly as a machismo innovator, from marketing non-existent broadband to creating a business selling the weather, under the cape of a massive fraud.
The culture created by Skilling was one of do or die with a taint of Darwin-determinism. Every year the bottom 15% performers would lose their job. Executives would go on adventuring weekends pushing themselves with extreme sports. This febrile atmosphere created an amorality which is illustrated in the film by recordings of traders telephone calls while are deliberately causing back-outs in California to push up prices in the deregulated energy market. As they are whooping at the size of their profits, a montage of people being rescued from trapped lifts, car crashes and isolated areas plays dispassionately.
Kenneth Lay, the founder of the company was a personal friend of the Bush family, George ‘W’ named him ‘Kenny Boy’, so lobbying for further deregulation hit the highest places. As the company began to collapse under the weight of its own fraudulent activity, he and the other executives were dumping their stock while encouraging others to invest more.
In the responses to the Senate, Lay and Skilling adopted a familiar response: naivety, humility and blaming the ‘rogue’ activity of Andrew Fastow who created ‘shell companies’ to hide Enron’s losses. There is also something familiar in the manner that the Enron bosses bullied journalists and investors who dared to question where the profits were coming from.
I urge future generations to watch this instructive film and learn from the errors of unchecked capitalism. When I saw this on its release I remember speculating the point in which legitimate behaviour becomes fraud. Hidden by the complexity and fast-moving exchange of data and money there seems to be a fine-line between profit and loss. Years later, the banking collapse demonstrated that the Enron’s flimsy premise of profit based on dubious formulas was the basis for entire economies, to which there was a collective blindness.