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Legal Commentary: Houston's Clear Thinkers
The latest Enron book
By Tom Kirkendall
Harvard Business School issued this press release and interview yesterday of Malcolm S. Salter, the Harvard professor who has written the latest book -- Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron's Collapse (Harvard University Press) -- in what seems to be a continuing stream on the demise of Enron. From the looks of it, Professor Salter has figured out that the recent collapse of Bear Stearns is a good hook for his book:
Q: Can an Enron-type calamity happen again? Why or why not?
A: Perverse incentives are legion throughout our system today. For example, perverse incentives for both mortgage brokers and investment bankers helped create the subprime crisis that we are now living through. Many boards are also still struggling to improve their oversight. Preventing future Enron-type disasters will require the kind of attention to board oversight, financial incentives, and ethical discipline that I address in Innovation Corrupted.
Interestingly, Professor Salter notes that Enron's collapse was triggered by its third-quarter 2001 charge against earnings and equity write-down, which were relatively small in comparison to the losses, charges and write-downs that Wall Street firms have endured over the past year during the sub-prime meltdown:
In the third week of October 2001, Arthur Andersen, Enron's highly compromised outside auditor, "discovered" several large accounting irregularities related to the off-balance-sheet partnerships. This forced Lay—who returned as CEO after Skilling resigned that August—to announce a $544 million charge against earnings, and a $1.2 billion write-down in shareholders' equity, largely related to the impending closure of Enron's Raptor partnerships. Within weeks, Enron collapsed into bankruptcy as its trading partners quickly lost faith—proving, once again, that even a hint of negligence or misconduct can be devastating to a company.
Ah, yes. That pesky trust-based business model.
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