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Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story Paperback – December 27, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

Enron was a $100-billion-a-year company in October 2001--America's seventh-largest. The Houston-based energy firm enjoyed warm ties with newly installed President George W. Bush. Earnings were up 26 percent from the previous quarter, while Fortune magazine had named Enron the country's most innovative company six years in a row. Less than two months later, Enron filed for bankruptcy in the biggest corporate failure in history. Enron became synonymous with the greed and fraud of the go-go high-tech stock bubble of the late 1990s--the worst of a series of spectacular corporate collapses that also took down WorldCom, Tyco, and Global Crossing.

What went wrong? Veteran New York Times financial journalist Kurt Eichenwald does an epic job of telling Enron's story in his 742-page tome Conspiracy of Fools. Eichenwald, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, also authored The Informant, an acclaimed account of a vast international price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland. Conspiracy of Fools tells the Enron tale with a cinematic narrative style, relying almost exclusively on scene and dialogue to bring his account to vivid life. We see how federal regulators opened the doors for the Enron fraud early on when they let the company loosen up its accounting rules and essentially cook its books. We read how Enron bullied Wall Street firms into issuing favorable reports about its share price by threatening to take away lucrative banking fees. Eichenwald also reveals how Enron manipulated electricity prices during the California energy crisis of 2000. Eichenwald's book is less successful in situating the Enron debacle in its wider context--the cycle of market speculation that reached a historic summit in the dot-com bubble. Was Enron just a cautionary sign of the greed and lack of ethics of a few bad apples, or was it more symptomatic of an entire market system? That may be a debate for another book. --Alex Roslin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This enormous, intimate blow-by-blow of Enron's implosion gets as close to what actually happened, in terms of people making (bad) decisions in real time, as anyone who wasn't there with a concealed video-phone possibly could. Having combed endless documents and interviewed countless principals and peripherals, Eichenwald (The Informant) presents short declarative sentences (and lots of sentence fragments) that may have run through the heads of men like top executives Skilling, Lay and Fastow as they managed to cook a very large set of books, as well as men like Stuart Zisman, a lawyer in the firm's wholesale division who wrote an early memo titled "Overall Book Manipulation" that stated "the majority of investments being introduced to Raptor are bad ones." Eichenwald's bald depictions ("Skilling sank deeper into depression"; "It couldn't be true, [Anderson partner Tom] Bauer thought") make for real tension. Collegial meetings at the White House with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and others; charged conference calls with skeptical investors; endless buy-ins, buyouts and acronyms—all are presented in a rat-a-tat style thick with corporate anxiety, keeping pages turning even as the details themselves are numbing. (Luckily, Eichenwald includes a "Cast of Characters" and "List of Deals" so that readers can remind themselves of past carnage.) As an unadorned attempt to get into the heads of some major manipulators, this book can hardly be bettered. (On sale Mar. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (December 27, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767911792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767911795
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (232 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kurt Eichenwald has written about Wall Street for The New York Times since 1987. He began investigating the Prudential scandal in 1989 and, in 1993, took a leave from his daily Market Place column to investigate Prudential Bache full time. His efforts yielded Serpent on the Rock and a Publisher's Award from the Times.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 108 people found the following review helpful By R. Shaff on April 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Anyone following the tragic Enron saga knows the plethora of books that have hit the streets. However, after reading many of them, CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS is probably one of my favorites. And, while I do agree with other reviewers' comments about Eichenwald's intense focus on Fastow as the puppet master, I can't help but think this is not too far from the truth. If, on the other hand, you haven't had the opportunity to catch up on this abomination, two other books are very worthy of mention: 24 DAYS by Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller, and THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (by the way, Bethany McLean receives high mention in CONSPIRACY as the tenacious young reporter who was not afraid to take on these power brokers).

Very simply put, I love Eichenwald's style. He has taken a subject, which can be extremely complex and dry (i.e. special purpose entities), and has provided the reader with a basis to understand how they were initiated, what they were "designed" to do, and where they failed miserably. And, while a novice to structured finance and accounting may not walk away from the book totally schooled on SPEs, one cannot say Eichenwald failed to explain the general basics. Further, Eichenwald has not created a historical rendering of events; rather, he has created a historical novel, of sorts. The book reads more like a novel and less like a business/non-fiction book.

Two of the more interesting features in this book are Eichenwald's "Cast of Characters," and "The Primary Deals," both of which occupy the forward section of the book. The "Cast of Characters" is no less than six pages (I didn't count the actual characters, but I'd bet there are in excess of 100).
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125 of 139 people found the following review helpful By eclectictastes on March 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Kurt Eichenwald provides an entertaining story for those of us who are familiar with the name Enron but unclear about the specifics .

Eichenwald presents his story as a Greek fable in the John Grisham and Scott Turow mold. The reader is introduced to protagonists Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and the Andy Fastow as the story's villain.

Although the book makes good storytelling, anyone who has read earlier books about Enron has to be skeptical about Eichenwald's sympathetic portrayal of Lay and Skillings and their supposed lack of knowledge about the stealing, lawbreaking and abuse that occurred under their watch. One can't help but wonder how Lay, who has a Ph.D in economics, could be so clueless about all the things that came to light about his company as it imploded. Skilling comes off as a sobbing, emotional wreck. It's a mystery how he ever attained the rank of CEO at a Fortune 500 company. I strongly suspect that both men served as major sources for this work.

Fastow is only a too familiar character to anyone who has worked in an office as the imcompetent, dishonest but scheming employee who charms the higher ups and climbs on the back of others to achieve power. But as with most work environments, Fastow couldn't achieve his crimes without the arrogance, disorganization and willful ignorance of his supervisors.

Another problem with the book is the author's retelling of various conversations and thoughts of most of the principal characters. Unless each source was keeping journals of the events as they unfolded, it's highly unlikely that the author's interpretation could be totally accurate.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By R. F. PELAEZ on July 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The book expurgates Ken Lay. Two portraits of Lay emerge depending on Enron's fortunes. In one, he is an innovative and managerial genius who rose from a humble background to become one of the most powerful and celebrated CEO's in the world. In the other, he is a sheep among wolves; an honest fool betrayed by thieves. Fastow emerges as the King of the Thieves.

Honesty is not a profit center in the business world. Managers do not receive bonuses for honesty. In a legal system that historically has been exquisitely soft on corporate criminals, the conflict between profits and honesty is resolved in favor of the former. If Ken Lay was so honest, why did he not emphasize the need for honesty within Enron during the many years when he could have done so. He had every opportunity to develop internal controls to ferret out managerial dishonesty and to instill a culture of honesty. We do not hear that the annual reviews even considered honesty; instead, the focus was on performance. Those who raised red flags received bad reviews. Clearly, all that mattered was for the rowers to make it possible for accounting earnings to meet or exceed analysts' expectations.

The book claims that Enron collapsed because it made too many bad investments. This is an amoral and simplistic view. Another view is it collapsed because decision-making took place within a culture of hubris and dishonesty. Ali Baba and the 400 Thieves pushed the envelope to the breaking point in the knowledge that they were too smart to be caught.

I give the book 5 stars for entertainment and 2 stars for depth, or in the spirit of charity, an average of 3.5.
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Arpeggio on March 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
As someone who lived through many of the events at Enron, and who also was subjected to one of Eichenwald's probing and seemingly endless interviews, all I can say is BRAVO. So much of what I have read about this company has been such a caricature, based on impressions and suppositions. This is the real story, and believe me, it is not a pretty one. Some of the revelations in this book horrified me. But, I now know from other former Enronites, all of whom seemed to have spoken to Eichenwald, that even the most shocking tale in here is true. And more that a few people are astonished that Eichenwald seems to have obtained records of their statements to the Feds.

This is a stunning book. The reviews are true: it does read like the best of corporate thrillers. More important to me, it is the real story about what happened. For the first time, at least every event I know about is recognizable, but more important, so is the company, in all of its twisted, psychotic and mismanaged ways.
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