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Enron - Smartest Guys in Town

One of the best documentaries I have ever seen which analyses the Enron debacle from the the inception of Enron to its rise, eminent fall and ultimate crash. It outlines the role played by different characters such as Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow and Ken Lay but more importantly it brings to light how common employees were led into doing the most unethical actions while making them believe that their actions were completely legitimate.

The documentary highlights how the actions of traders in Enron illustrates the inferences of Milgram Experiments, the only other live case study of them being the war crimes conducted by Nazi / German army officers during the WWII on Hitler's orders.

The documentary raised a lot of questions in my mind ...

Many times our actions look quite legitimate at the time when several contextual pieces of information are in our mind. For example, under a deregulated power rate policy in California, the actions of traders would have looked legitimate. As another example, take the recent 2G spectrum allocation scam in India - under the then policy of FCFS, the allocation would have looked quite legitimate. Yet, both these actions look fraudulent in hindsight.

The second question is how political events of the present can change the way future looks at past. At one point in the documentary, Enron's Dabhol power plant is mentioned as one of the most frivolous bets played by the company without any due diligence. However, just imagine that if this one bet or for that matter any other bet played out and Enron would not have filed for bankruptcy, the Dabhol plant would today have been called visionary - Enron would have been credited with seeing the future rise of India as a potential market of billions.

The third thought is exactly the opposite of the second - that no matter how you play your political bets, a wrong deed can never return the right results. At the point where Enron was on the verge of a fall, Ken Lay's close friend, George Bush became the president; it was even rumoured that Ken Lay would be appointed the Energy Secretary paving way for deregulation of energy distribution in the whole of the US, and creating a big profit bag for Enron. However, even Bush's appointment failed to help the screwed up finances and cooked up books of Enron and Jeff Skilling sealed the fate by quitting Enron at the exact wrong (or may be right) moment!

Finally, business unlike what Investment Bankers or Accountants may like us to believe is very little about finance and almost completely about value - real value. This sentence has two connotations:

  • Finance is the fuel which runs the engine of the business vehicle - but this vehicle needs direction which for a business is the value system of the company. Without the value system, the greed to make more and more money can lead a business into an unending cycle where there is no regard to sustenance of business 
  • Any business must produce real value to its customers - no amount of juggling with unreal assets such as exotic derivatives or energy trading can help the business grow unless there is an underlying real growth in value. We have now seen this twice - once in the specific case of Enron and again in case of 2008 market meltdown triggered by sub-prime asset bubble.
What do you think of the above? Do leave thoughts in comments ... 


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