The Perfect Storm

That’s how Enron describes the forces that sunk its stock. But it caused its own disaster—through greed, arrogance, and a failure to learn from the past.

January 2002By Comments

“IT’S NOTHING BUT A HOUSE OF CARDS.” If you lived in Houston, you heard that description of Enron every once in a while—around the watercoolers at the downtown banks or at dinner parties where the guests worked for the competition. It was usually said with a knowing and bemused shake of the head, as if the speaker was used to being ignored. I first heard the statement more than two years ago: I was walking my dog and got into a conversation with a neighbor, an accountant who knew somebody at Enron. “House of cards,” he said of the company, shaking his head and shrugging. Then he went back to cutting his grass with a rusted manual mower, an activity any high-flying Enron employee would have scoffed at.

As I write this, the sound of another neighbor’s laughter is wafting into my home office. I’m glad he’s laughing: He had worked at Enron for just a few years but on Monday, December 3, had been sent packing, along with about 3,999 fellow employees, when the company declared bankruptcy. I had watched the construction of his large, graceful Craftsman-esque home with some envy and, this year, had thought how nice it would have been to have paid someone, as he did, to hang all the Christmas lights that are de rigueur in our neighborhood. Now I’m not so envious, but the Enron story continues to enthrall me, partly because it is such a spectacular tale of ambition and failure and hubris and greed but mostly because it is such a Houston story, incontestably borne of the city’s addiction to risk and its passion for the stunning highs and equally awesome crashes risk takers create.

It was the growing ubiquity of the "house of cards" line, in fact, that drew me to the Enron story I wrote in this magazine's November issue. When I started working on the piece, everyone told me the same thing: "No one will talk to you." When I asked why, the reason was either "because they're really, really rich and don't want to" or "because they signed confidentiality agreements and can't." A few people did talk to me—most on deep, deep background, but former CEO Jeff Skilling on the record—and I wrote the story anyway. When the magazine went to press, in mid-October, Enron's stock, which had been worth $80 a share in January, had fallen to $35. No one thought it could possibly get any worse.

It could. In early December it bottomed out at 25—that's cents, not dollars. The meanest corporation in America had a fall that was consistent with its character—fast, brutal, and humiliating. As its critics had suggested, Enron's finances were not as solid as advertised—like many companies, Enron had been stretching the edge of the accounting envelope to keep debt off its balance sheets. But Enron, hooked on its own cleverness, did it to excess. As the company's stock price tumbled with each new revelation—a third-quarter loss of $618 million, a $1.2 billion loss in shareholder equity, the overstating of the past five years' profits to the tune of $586 million, the sudden departures of its treasurer and its CFO—Enron's reputation followed the stock price down. My phone started ringing off the wall with pleading calls from people who hadn't wanted to talk before, soon to be joined by those who wanted a piece of the journalistic action. "This is bigger than Barbarians at the Gate!" I heard more than once, along with the question, first raised by a reporter from People on a drizzly Sunday morning, "How could this happen?"

How it happened was actually not that mysterious: Only a few cynics and party poopers had noticed that, during the nineties, Enron had ceased to be a pipeline company and was operating sort of like an unregulated bank, funding trades and deals of every kind imaginable. It had shed hard assets in favor of intellectual capital, which was fine as long as times were good. But when a couple of deals went sour—a venture into broadband and the California electricity-deregulation adventures—Enron's credibility started to slip on Wall Street. Because Enron had been selling power plants and pipelines like mad, the company had insufficient assets to use as collateral to raise more money (CEO Skilling, who departed so abruptly last summer after only six months in the top job, had been preaching for years that hard assets were nothing but a drag on a company's bottom line). And more money it desperately needed, to satisfy margin calls on its trading operations. Hence, no customers, no lenders, and no cash flow. Since the generation of goodwill had never been a priority at Enron, the company got no mercy either. My fifth-grade son and I were reading The Call of the Wild during this period. It was instructive.

Enron spinners christened the disaster "The Perfect Storm," suggesting that the company had been hit by a series of catastrophic coincidences. But as one lawyer close to the company remarked dryly, "Enron made its own weather." That certain executives might have been incomprehensibly greedy; that arrogance and intellectual intimidation might have silenced anyone, inside or outside the company, who asked hard questions; that board members and top administrators had ignored warnings that Enron might have finally innovated itself beyond the brink—those were ethical explorations that were raised too late. The truth was, precious few people complained about Enron's novel financing when the stock price was $90 a share—few journalists, few analysts, few executives, and certainly none of the company's eager investors. I wondered whether Jeff Skilling, hailed not so long ago by Worth magazine as one of the best bosses in America, was stunned at the speed with which he was exiled to the other side of the looking glass.

Probably not. Introspection has never been a quality prized by corporate executives or, for that matter, Texans. Least of all did anyone want to hear comparisons to the eighties, especially if you factored in other bad news—the precarious state of Continental Airlines or the pending absorption of Compaq by Hewlett-Packard. The Enron scenes were discomfittingly evocative: the tearful employees who had lost their health insurance and retirement savings carrying their meager belongings from the building in cardboard boxes (more-prosperous Enronians used their expensive ergonomic desk chairs as luggage carts); the release of legal attack dogs Joe Jamail (representing Enron's most favored attorneys, Vinson and Elkins) and Steve Susman (representing Enron itself); the descent of the national press, like relatives at the funeral of a rich uncle they'd never much cared for in life. The day Dynegy chairman Chuck Watson announced the Hail Mary Merger, I watched Enron founder Ken Lay seated onstage. Watson looked like a linebacker, but in the old days, Lay, a man of slight build, always seemed much larger, cloaked as he was in his spectacular wealth and power. Now, when introduced, he stooped over to pull up his socks, suddenly an old man at 58. It made me long for those stories of the exotic car shows that took place in front of Enron on bonus day and the tales of employees engaging in wild sex in glass-walled offices.

But my nostalgia was wasted, because character is destiny, and when all else failed and the money was gone, the arrogance and meanness remained. When the Dynegy merger was first announced in early December, Enron employees told each other, "We'll own them in weeks." It was as if Dynegy, the good-natured jock, hadn't noticed that its gorgeous cheerleader was high maintenance and on the make; when Dynegy pulled out of the deal and Enron sued for $10 billion, alleging Dynegy had forced Enron into bankruptcy, I felt like a chump for being surprised. And, yes, Enron traders held the company up for millions to stay in their jobs, while twenty-year employees got $4,500 severance checks, and yes, the company filed for bankruptcy in New York specifically to keep laid-off employees from storming the courthouse. That threat was real: Skilling's picture turned up alongside Osama bin Laden's on "Wanted" posters inside the company headquarters, and both Skilling and Lay hired personal security. (I knew I had been infected by the Enron virus myself when I called an Enron source and asked only half-jokingly whether he wanted to sell me his house.)

So now we have the Enron miniseries to look forward to: Can the company survive and, for that matter, should it? Will Enron's much-vaunted White House connections be of any help whatsoever, or have they evaporated too? Will 401(k)'s be retooled, so that employees won't have to stand by and watch their life savings vanish, as Enron's did? Will lawsuits against Enron be allowed to go forward during the bankruptcy proceedings? Will the fallout extend to Enron's lawyers, Vinson and Elkins, and its accountants, Arthur Andersen? Who, if anyone, will go to jail?

Finally, there is my favorite question: When will Houston ever learn? The other night, KPRC-TV hosted an Enron special—"Boom to Bust" it was called—that featured several employees who had been fired that day. Dressed in the company's signature khakis and jeans, the assembled appeared shell-shocked and contrite. "I learned a good lesson in ethics," one beefy young man assured the viewers. A few well-meaning job counselors joined the show, and Becky Collums, a motherly type with a business called CC Staffing, brought up the cliché about doors closing and windows opening: "People can look at this as an opportunity to recreate themselves," she urged sweetly. Just a few months ago, she would have been laughed out of the Enron building. These refugees gave her their full attention.

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