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Important reminders from Enron’s fall

December 13, 2011
Daily Press

WASHINGTON - Ten years ago this month, Enron collapsed, bankrupting the seventh largest U.S. corporation at the time and ripping away the mask from a massive and damaging corporate fraud.

This is a good time to reflect on what happened a decade ago and how many of the misdeeds that led to Enron's collapse are still far too prevalent today. We shouldn't forget how the culture of Enron - built on outsized corporate pay, conflicts of interest, tax evasion, financial engineering, and hidden debt - did so much harm to so many, and nearly brought the global economy to its knees. That culture is still too big a part of our financial system.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, released reports on the failure of Enron's board members to safeguard shareholder interests; actions taken by major financial institutions to help Enron cook its books; and Enron's use of financial engineering to make its financial results look better than they were, while evading taxes.

The findings we reached in the aftermath of Enron's demise are worth keeping in mind as we consider our economic future. Why should we remember Enron?

Runaway executive pay. Enron paid its CEO Ken Lay $140 million in 2000, including $123 million in stock options. Enron set the standard for outrageous CEO pay, and demonstrated how, in search of ever-larger paychecks, CEOs can lead companies into ever-riskier schemes that endanger not just shareholders, but the economy as a whole.

Tax evasion. Despite reporting huge profits, Enron paid no taxes in four of its last five years and used tax scams and offshore shell entities to dodge paying its fair share. Today, dozens of U.S. corporations use similar tactics not only to dodge Uncle Sam, but claim huge tax rebates. Enron was a catalyst for today's corporate tax cheats.

Corporate conflicts of interest. Enron's chief financial officer profited by using his own company, LJM, to do deals with Enron to cook its books. Heedless of Enron's example, banks such as Goldman Sachs and Citi later set up synthetic securities, sold shares to clients, and profited by betting against their own clients. Enron helped create a culture of corporations failing to do right by their clients.

Accounting conflicts. Enron's accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, approved financial statements loaded up with fraud. Despite Enron's cautionary tale, so did accountants for Madoff Securities, Olympus, and other firms that have collapsed in years since, damaging investors, consumers and market stability. Enron showed how accountants reliant on revenues from clients can be convinced to look the other way. It's still happening today.

Credit rating conflicts. Credit rating agencies gave Enron AAA ratings until it collapsed. They have given the same AAA ratings to toxic securities, failing corporations, and deadbeat banks, often because issuing tougher ratings would cost them business. Enron exposed the unreliability of credit rating agencies that place the search for market share above the need for objective analysis.

Excessive speculation. Enron speculated and manipulated electricity prices for big profits. Today, speculators whipsaw the American economy with roller coaster energy, metal, and food prices.

Enron jacked up the commodity business to everyone's detriment but the speculators; and without tough enforcement of anti-speculation laws, the damage will continue.

Financial engineering. Enron designed countless financial engineering gimmicks that served its financial interests but endangered clients and investors. Today, financial firms rave about financial "innovations," while pushing toxic products like auction securities, naked credit default swaps, and worse. Enron showed how financial engineering creates weapons of mass destruction; a decade later, exotic financial products helped bring the U.S. economy to its knees.

The need for regulators to stop the madness. In response to Enron, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act banned multimillion-dollar corporate loans to corporate insiders, forced CEOs to certify their internal financial controls, and created new accounting oversight. Those changes helped curb Enron-style abuses. Congress continued the cleanup in 2010 with Wall Street reform legislation, but much more needs to be done. All of us should keep Enron in mind as financial regulators work to turn the law we passed into strong rules that can build new protections for consumers and the economy.

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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.

 
 

 

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