Nov 18, 2022 - Economy

Why the decades-old Enron scandal matters now

A demonstrator protests against the World Economic Forum and the Enron scandal 04 February 2002 outside the offices of the Arthur Andersen Accounting firm in New York.

A demonstrator protests against the World Economic Forum and the Enron scandal in February 2002. The scandal stoked public outrage over the stock market. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

John Ray III, now the CEO of the bankrupt crypto exchange FTX, also helped clean up one of corporate America’s biggest collapses 20 years ago: Enron. History isn't repeating, per se, but it rhymes.

Why it matters: If FTX's blowup is anything like Enron's, that means big changes are on the horizon for the systems that enabled the crypto company's rise and fall.

  • Enron was a Wall Street darling and the seventh-largest public company in the U.S. — before the Houston-based energy firm became the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history to that point. It was the first major corporate collapse of the 21st century.

The intrigue: Ray is considered an expert at the bankruptcy process — back in the early 2000s he was able to wrest billions of dollars from big banks on behalf of Enron's creditors, at a time when the process appeared to have stalled.

  • Here's what he said Thursday about FTX in court documents: "Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here."

Catch up quick: Enron used accounting shenanigans to make it appear profitable, essentially hiding its financial losses in shell companies; it also marked future potential profits as actual profits.

  • The perception of success kept its stock price high — until it all came crashing down.
  • The use of supposedly separate companies to pull off financial chicanery seems similar to what FTX has done, argues David Z. Morris in a piece on CoinDesk.
  • Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who ran the company, were viewed as brilliant. They were both convicted on criminal charges. Skilling did jail time and Lay died in 2006 before his sentencing.
  • Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers laid out the parallels between FTX and Enron in an interview last week: “The smartest guys in the room. Not just financial error but — certainly from the reports — whiffs of fraud," he said. "Vast explosion of wealth that nobody quite understands where it comes from.”

Fallout: The Enron bankruptcy not only helped transform, for a time, the way Americans viewed public companies and the stock market (shady/too risky!) but also led to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, a law that tightened up accounting rules for public companies.

  • Those tighter rules made it harder for companies to go public, leading to fewer IPOs in the ensuing years and pushing companies to seek more capital from the private markets (like FTX did).
  • Meanwhile: The penalties that Enron executives and its accounting firm Arthur Andersen faced put them both out of business and destroyed thousands of jobs, leading to a notion in the U.S. that overly harsh penalties against corporations could hurt innocent workers.

What to watch: Public sentiment and regulations. So far it's not at all clear if the FTX scandal will move the needle on either.

  • FTX's collapse seems to mostly have confirmed people's priors on crypto lots of people saying they knew it was a scam; while true believers stick to their guns and keep bitcoin prices steady.
  • As for the regulators, stay tuned.
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