This chapter was written long before the Enron debacle came to light, in fact it is about the inevitability of Enrons because of wholesale cheating to boost reported earnings. Enron was not the exception, it was the rule. Enron undoubtedly passed the line and broke accounting rules, but the majority of publicly held companies push as close to the line as possible in order to enhance reported earnings. Arthur Anderson, its auditor, is not a rotten apple, all the major accounting firms aid and abet the process of overstating earnings.
Solutions do not lie with cleaning up the accounting profession, it is the source that must be attacked – the tremendous payoffs corporate management derives from stretched accounting.
Will the sensational disclosures lead to a clean up, or will the affair blow over with a few revisions to the rules for 401K plans? I am not optimistic. Enron points out once again the overwhelming power of aggressive corporate management to use company funds to benefit themselves. Sound rules carried out in a vigorous manner can solve the problem. Accountants will give us honest figures if freed from the pressure of management wielding big money for compliant manipulation. Enron paid Arthur Anderson $52 million for accounting services in 2000, $25 million just for auditing, a figure topped by only a few other and much larger public companies. That kind of money buys a lot of cooperation. The answer to the mess is truly independent auditors, both in setting rules and enforcing them.
I am utterly fascinated by Enron. A day never passes without at least two new revelations. Its tentacles are so widespread that new chapters will be unfolding for a long time. This is a much bigger story than realized. The war is a tiny affair in comparison because Enron and America are about business. Enron brings into focus many deeply troubling problems that have been swept under the rug by the long bull market.
Enron says a lot about what is wrong with the stock market, for its revealed evils are not at all uncommon. Too many public companies are managed to elevate the stock price, rather for the long term good of the enterprise and the economy. The result is unwise activities that boost earnings over the short term, bad acquisitions, restructuring to erase past mistakes, manipulative accounting that makes investing a guessing game, and an immense waste of capital resources in frivolous ventures. There is a lot more to running a company than hyping the stock.
Some of the revelations about Enrons accounting are mind boggling. Even more amazing is that many are legal, and therefore in common use. Arthur Anderson, Enron’s accountant, is no different from the other big accounting firms. They are all thoroughly enmeshed with management in exaggerating reported earnings in an effort to elevate stock prices. Every knowledgeable person is aware of this scandal, but no one wants to think or do anything about it for fear of hurting the price of their stocks. Now the mess is out in the open.
Why not start at the top. George W. Bush had no qualifications for the presidency, he was selected by big business because as governor of Texas he demonstrated political skill and unqualified support for business. He was elected on big corporate money, though not bought, for he is wholeheartedly their man. The question for his presidency was going to be, can big business run the country? Enron says the answer is no. Destruction of the surplus with tax cuts crowded into the high brackets says no. Give Bush the benefit of the doubt, though, the jury is still out on big business’s governmental management talents, but the signs coming out of Enron are not encouraging.
Next, there is Congress. Enron was built on stock hype and bad accounting. The accounting profession was well aware of spreading misrepresentation, and its governing bodies tried to slow the trend. In the crucial decisions, notably accounting for stock options and separation of auditing and consulting, reform lost because of the intervention of campaign contribution stuffed senators and congressmen. How could these people intervene where they had no expertise when the rule making bodies were doing the right thing? Because corporate management paid them to. The connection is being made between business excesses and campaign contributions.
At yet another level, Enron demonstrates the dreadful practices that overwhelmed leading investment banks. These people are willing to finance anything they can get away with simply because the fees are large. In Enron’s case they raised the money to support many of the fraudulent partnerships and offshore entities that covered up the company’s true condition. They sold a large institutional placement offering information on the company withheld from stockholders, probably illegally, though judging by the subsequent results, the treasured information should have alerted buyers to stay away. A major commercial bank/investment banker provided a vehicle for hiding losses from recent annual reports. Why did bankers engage in these probably illegal activities? The answer is huge fees, just as with underwriting hundreds of dreadful high technology and internet IPOs. They sold manure through unqualified boosting. Lacking full disclosure, deals that violated the intent of the securities laws became everyday. To an extent investors deceived themselves, but they bought the reputation of the underwriters and the hype they provided more than the companies themselves.
American capitalism works because of a blending of the free market and government regulation. Left unfettered, the free market gets caught up in intense greed and self- destructs. Karl Marx was about the inevitable self-destruction, except Marx was wrong because government stepped in and controlled the instinctive unfairness in the free market. We operate under a delicate balance between the free market and government regulation that swings back and forth. The free market self-destructs, the government steps in and over-regulates, then the free market regains its energy and outwits government controls, only to once again self destruct in its excesses. The end of the great bull market and the Bush election probably mark the high water mark for the up phase of the free market. Now that its bad aspects are revealed in all their ugliness, the pendulum will swing back toward government control. The problems are profound and the swing to more control will take time, especially with the Bush administration manning the free market ramparts.
Many of the best minds on the market think stocks will go no where for a good many years until pricing returns to reasonable levels. Those of us who felt the market was reaching a long term peak a couple of years ago did not know what forces would end the long rise. Now we know – bad corporate practices arising out of the market’s own excesses. A flat market will be supported by modest earnings growth, making extreme overpricing stand out. Improved accounting standards will be a force holding down earnings. A slow period for the market will be helpful, as all would be forgotten if we once again entered euphorialand.
One of the most intriguing questions arising from Enron is why otherwise respectable people use manipulative accounting. The answer is the tremendous incentive in stock options. Options allow management to become extremely rich in a short period of time. We are going to find that twenty or so people at Enron became very rich on options. The present secretary of the army, a former Enroner, was a second line executive who became an eight figure multi-millionaire as the second in command of a division that was guilty of gross figure manipulation. Apparently his job was sales and he did not know the ridiculous accounting tricks being played with the long term energy contracts he brought in. Is it comforting to know that one of Bush’s cabinet members was too dumb to understand what was going on in his own division? He stretched out his sales of Enron stock, required by his government position, so clearly he was ignorant of the gimmickry. Bush shares that kind of innocence. If Clinton’s number one backer had come out as has Enron with Bush, everyone would be screaming because of knowing he had probably given something in return. In Bush’s case, his standard bewilderment about anything complicated makes it easy to believe he failed to understand the implications, particularly when catering to big business is what brought him the presidency.
There is little appreciation of the extent to which management of public companies has been stealing ownership out from under stockholders. In the more popular companies, options often represent 30% of outstanding shares. Counting already exercised options, management and employee shares can end up representing over 50% of ownership on a free ride. Management gets away with this theft because options, while obviously a form of compensation, never appear as an expense on the income statement because of a special exemption earned through congressional intervention. In addition, Enron, Cisco, Microsoft to a large extent, and practically all high technology companies because of their particular abuse of options, have never paid income taxes because they are permitted to take options as an expense at the highest valuation.
The option system is crazy. It encourages earnings enhancement because even a temporarily high level for the stock can fix management up for the rest of their lives. The set up involves no risk and no investment, because the stock is usually pay for simultaneously with cashing in the exercised options. Being fully aware of the hype that elevated the stock, management is in position to make timely purchases and sales. While options are supposed to be an incentive for good management, in fact they are just the opposite. The popular slogans, pay for performance and aligning management and shareholder interests, are baloney. One of the subtler entanglements coming to light through Enron is the role of boards of directors. Why have boards allowed management to get away with huge stock option awards, a highly anti-stockholder form of compensation? The answer is that management buys their cooperation through large fees, stock options, and inclusion in company pension plans. The total package is so fat that directors would be acetic spartans not to follow management’s lead and forget their purported job of representing stockholders. Enron brings the highly conflicted position of boards of directors, and their decisions in favor of management and against stockholders, out into the open.
On management’s part, the temptation to become very rich overrides fear of dishonesty, aided by many of the figure enhancing practices being perfectly legal. If you want to hear insistent pleas of innocence, don’t go to death row, listen to top managers pleading their devotion to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Management is no longer concerned about the day of reckoning that goes with bad accounting because restructuring allows the cheating to be erased.
An interesting undertone to the corrective process is that Bush, ever catering to business interests, brought in as head of the SEC a man totally conflicted by being a leading SEC lawyer for big companies and accounting firms. He began to dismantle many of the progressive moves initiated by his predecessor. He reminds me of Joseph Kennedy, who FDR named as first SEC head under the theory it takes a crook to know a crook. Now Pitt, the new head, looks like a fool, so maybe he can turn himself around and stop protecting the thieves. The cards are face up on the table, and what used to be easy to get away with no longer is. Dick Cheney’s claim that he was only consulting the experts in dealing with oil executives while drawing up energy policy might have been accepted a year ago, now it is greeted with the guffaw it deserves. Suddenly we appreciate the extraordinary greed that has overtaken corporate culture.