Sunday, January 27, 2002

A week ago I argued that regardless of the stringency of disclosure regulations, the opacity of Enron's books should have been a red flag to responible investors long ago (and was, in fact recognized as such by a tiny minority of analysts). Well, it turns out that Enron investors should be even more embarrassed right now than I had realized. According to the New York Times, accountants for a German utility company considering a merger with Enron back in 1999 discovered enough skeletons in Enron's closet in the course of their two-week "due diligence" to sour the Germans on the deal. "The consultants drew on public sources like trade publications and securities filings", according to the Times' sources, and "concluded that Enron had shifted so much debt off its balance sheet accounts that the company's total debt load amounted to 70 to 75 percent of its value"--considerably more than the debt-rating agencies' estimate of 54%. Said one source: "'We were wondering why this wasn't common knowledge, or why it wasn't discovered by those people whose business it was to discover these things.'" Indeed. "'When things were going well,' said one of the people involved in analyzing the deal, 'the view among those who knew about this kind of stuff was that Enron was being Enron, which meant being clever.'"

Of course, that was back in the "denial" stage. Now that the country has moved on to "anger", even the revelation that Enron's condition had long been apparent to anyone who bothered to check can prompt journalists like Josua Micah Marshal to ask suspiciously, "Who else knew?" I'm not quite sure what he's getting at, but I think he means that the president or other administration officials may have known for a while that Enron was a turkey, and yet failed to--uh, what? Publish an investment newsletter? Short the stock? Start an "Enron Sucks" Website? And why, of all the garbage stocks in hype-addled companies foolishly hoarded by millions of pigeons throughout the market's spectacular descent from grossly undeserved highs to richly deserved lows, was it somebody's responsibility to do something specifically about Enron?

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