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Hands Up! This is Aggressive Accounting!
30 January 2002
Austin - The seminal historic event always affects the language. Already we can see that Enron is of this shattering magnitude. A stick-up artist goes into the Jiffy Mart to pull a heist. He whips his heater and says to the clerk, "Put 'em up, this is an aggressive accounting practice."
Or, you take your car to Ralph's Rip-Off Garage to get a 50-buck problem fixed and, sure enough, he bills you $600. You say, "What an aggressive accounting practice!"
Euphemism of the Year, and not even February yet.
The single most distinguishing feature of the Enron collapse is that no one is yet sure the company did anything illegal. (Aside from destroying documents, which arguably falls in the "seriously ill-advised" category.) As we gyre and gimble in the wabe of Enron, we run across such delightful items. Did you know that Enron's board twice voted to suspend its own ethics code in order to create private partnerships? But how thoughtful of them to suspend the ethics code first! Otherwise, they might have violated it.
The funniest line of argument about Enron so far is, "This is not a political scandal." Boy, there's a triumph of denial. Of course it's a political scandal.
Business writers solemnly explain that Enron was in the business of buying and selling everything from natural gas and electricity to as the company grew increasingly delirious broadband telecommunications, water and weather contracts. Also, legislators, congressmen, governors, senators and presidents the company bought them with campaign contributions and then sold them on fatally foolish policies. Anyone who tells you campaign contributions only buy "access, not policy" needs to have his nose rubbed in this one. Just to mention a few highlights:
Wendy Gramm's key decision as chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to deregulate energy futures markets. She has been on the Enron board since 1992.
Sen. Phil Gramm received over $97,000 in Enron contributions and passed legislation that exempted key parts of Enron from government oversight.
President George W. Bush got $2 million in contributions from Enron and its officers over the years, and numerous administration officials have Enron connections. A key decision by the administration was to call off the Clinton-led effort to stop international money-laundering (used by terrorists, drug-traffickers, kleptocratic dictators and tax evaders) by going after off-shore banks. As has been widely reported, Enron maintained more than 800 offshore accounts in order to avoid taxes paying zero in four of the last five years.
Much as we would love to gyre and gimble in the wabe of Enron with the Jabberwock, there's some serious business here. If we are lucky, plucky and raise lots of hell, Congress will probably make some improvements in campaign finance laws, the conflict of interest on auditors also working as consultants and oversight of private partnerships. And that will not be enough.
As Bill Greider writes in the current issue of The Nation: "The rot consists of more than greed and ignorance. The evolving new forms of finance and banking, joined with the permissive culture in Washington, produced an exotic structural nightmare. ... They converge, with kereitzu (Japanese crony capitalism) -style back-scratching in the business of lending and investing other people's money. The results are profoundly conflicted loyalties in banks and financial firms who have fiduciary obligations to the citizens who give them money to invest. Banks and brokerages often cannot tell the truth to retail customers, depositors or investors without potentially injuring the corporate clients that provide huge commissions and profits from investment deals. Sometimes bankers cannot even tell the truth to themselves because they have put their own capital (or government-insured deposits) at risk in the deals."
It seems to me pointless to continue the argument over free-market capitalism versus regulated capitalism. It is a theological, not a practical, argument, requiring perfect faith from the free market fundamentalists. The questions are, "What works?" and, "What doesn't work?" Leaving corporations without government oversight doesn't work. "The disorder writ large by the Enron story is this regular plundering of ordinary Americans (through pension plans and mutual funds)," concludes Greider.
And the greater danger is that as these enormous financial institutions run into trouble, they'll take everybody with them. Greider quotes Tom Schlesinger, executive director of the Financial Markets Center: "A bank that has equity shares in a company that goes south can no longer make neutral, objective judgments about when to cut off credit. The rationale for repealing Glass-Steagall was that it would create more diversified banks and therefore more stability. What I see in these mega-banks in not diversification but more concentration of risk, which puts the taxpayers on the hook. It also creates a financial sector less responsive to the real needs of the economy."
When you hear people say Enron represents a "systemic" or "structural" failure, this is what they're talking about. And that's what needs to be fixed.