The rise and fall of Enron is an instant classic in the annals of capitalism because, in one calamitous stroke, it wipes out so many sanctified illusions that rule in the magic marketplace. Enron embodies Nobel-class hubris like that of the market sophisticates who brought Long-Term Capital Management to ruin in 1998. It also smells of the raw monopolistic greed common a century ago. An energy-trading company that Wall Street had valued at $80 billion ten months ago is now a penny stock. Meanwhile, California consumers and businesses are stuck with the ruinously inflated electricity prices that Enron rode to brief financial glory. The firm's gullible creditors include some of the best gilt-edged names in American banking–J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup–whose ancestral houses were big players during the first Gilded Age too. Unfortunately, then and now, these venerable financial institutions lured millions of innocents to the slaughter, unwitting shareholders who bought the exuberant promises.
In this case, the lambs include Enron's own employees (thousands of whom are abruptly out of work) because top management cleverly prohibited their 401(k) accounts from selling Enron's plummeting stock while the big boys were dumping theirs. If the financial losses to banks are severe enough–we don't yet know the full truth–then US taxpayers may be burned too, their money used once again to rescue delinquent financiers from their just deserts in the name of "saving the system." Nobody ever said capitalism was pretty.
Markets are imperfectible human artifacts and always subject to gross error, not to mention high-stakes fraud, because the transactions are always the work of human beings. Computerization and esoteric mathematical formulations do not change that humble fact; neither does the Internet. This same lesson was learned from great pain and loss in the early twentieth century and led eventually to the political understanding that markets without governors and regulators will repeatedly throw off disastrous consequences–extreme price swings, occasional busts and clever larcenies–so stabilizing rules and limits were imposed. That knowledge was pushed aside by the modern era's deregulation.
Enron was a massive experiment in e-commerce–a commodity-trading firm that used the Internet to connect distant buyers and sellers of everything from electricity and natural gas, steel and newsprint to pollution credits and financial derivatives hedging against interest rates or the weather. If you check out Enron Online, you will see the hubris still on display, despite the bankruptcy. "Why Enron?" the company's website asks. "We have strong skills in risk intermediation and good systems to control risk…. We have successfully sourced capital for all potential investments." As it turns out, these are the very qualities that were missing, the "new economy" conceits that brought it down. Enron's siren song was plausible enough (if you left out the human folly and greed). Deregulation, combined with Internet trading, exposed the old-line utilities to fierce, continuous price competition, the firm explained, forcing them to eliminate inefficiencies or get out. Consumers would win from the lower wholesale prices; so would producers of "soft energy" alternatives, like wind or solar. Enron would preside like a wise monarch.
But while Enron promised to scrutinize the soundness of buyers and sellers, nobody was scrutinizing the trader king. The middleman is unregulated in this brave new world. When Enron management made a series of outrageous and self-interested off-the-books deals to raise capital, its auditor, Arthur Andersen, gave approval. The credit-rating agencies remained mute. Enron's bankers were busy touting the stock as on its way to the moon. Enron and chairman Kenneth Lay, meanwhile, pumped nearly $2 million into the election of George W. Bush, who returned the favor by letting Enron pick federal regulatory appointments. Lay and his agents were all over Vice President Cheney's secretive energy task force, and White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey received $50,000 last year as an Enron "adviser."
The disaster of California's blackouts and soaring electric bills was a prima facie case of monopoly price-gouging–artificial scarcity induced by utilities simultaneously shutting down electricity generation for "repairs"–that cries out for criminal investigation. Collusion has not yet been proved nor Enron's involvement, as far as I know, but the firm profited spectacularly. While California groaned, Enron's share price more than doubled. Enron then used its new glamour status to leverage still more debt, expanding its reach worldwide and opening more trading tables–financing it all in ways even savvy analysts couldn't understand. It was the classic behavior of unfettered freebooters, and it ended in the familiar way.
What did we learn? First, wholesale deregulation has a vicious downside for ordinary citizens and is open to gross manipulation. Second, as Floyd Norris of the New York Times pointed out, Enron is essentially not an energy company but a financial institution that trades various financial instruments, utterly free of regulating limits. Like a bank, it must raise huge capital flows to maintain liquidity to underwrite the transactions, but unlike a bank or a financial market, it operates without oversight. Third, nearly every party to this debacle–Enron itself, its auditor, the bankers and brokerages–is guilty of profound conflicts of interest. They do not tell the truth to retail customers like small-scale investors for fear of offending their big investment clients. Enron, it seems, didn't tell the truth to its bankers either, and they didn't ask.
As we learn more, the fall of Enron may be seen as the logical result of repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited commercial banks from merging with investment houses. The remedial agenda would start with the reregulation of banking and finance, in order to restore a milieu of prudence and honest dealings at the heart of capitalism. Other sectors should follow: energy, telecommunications and airlines, for starters.
It would be comforting to think this event will turn politics around and put a little spine in our legislators. Certainly many state governments have learned from California's pain. But don't count on Washington. Even after Enron's meltdown, leading Democrats continue to shill for more deregulation, aware that their money patrons will be most upset if they reopen fundamental scrutiny of how wealth is created in the magic market. Elite opinion leaders will probably stick with the laissez-faire dogma, as it continues to fall apart, until the bloody losses lap over their shoes too.