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Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 13, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
Two significant differences are that Smith and Emshwiller limit their attention primarily to a period in 2001 extending from October 16th (when Enron announced huge losses caused by two partnerships) to December 3rd (when Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy); McLean and Elkind cover a two-year period of the company's "amazing rise and scandalous fall." Also, McLean and Elkind devote far more attention to each of the "smartest guys"; Smith and Emshwiller seem far less interested in them, except in terms of the impact of their mismanagement and corruption. Let's say there are two books about the collapse of the twin towers at the World Trade Center; one focuses on the human tragedies associated with it whereas a second book addresses design, construction, and structural issues. Obviously, both approaches are valid.
McLean and Elkind suggest that the eventual collapse of Enron was caused less by the greed of senior-level Enron executives than it was by their arrogance and incompetence. Their lack of basic business acumen is astonishing as is their defiance of regulatory agencies and contempt for customers. None of them seems to have had a moral "compass." They exemplified, indeed nourished a culture of brutal competition between and among their subordinates. Each used Enron as a personal ATM as well as a means by which to structure all manner of corporate partnerships and high risk/high yield investments without fear of any personal liability. If one prospered, so did they. If it failed, the loss was Enron's. On to another.
Primary blame for all this must be shared by Lay, Skilling, and Fastow. McLean and Elkind rigorously examine the inadequacies of each, suggesting that if only one of the three had not been involved, it is probable that Enron would not have had the problems it did. Attorneys, accountants, brokers (notably Merrill Lynch) and bankers (especially Citibank and JP Morgan Chase) apparently were aware of Enron's bending and then breaking of various laws but were earning so much in fees that they chose to remain at the Enron "trough" side-by-side with Lay, Skilling, Fastow, and other Enron executives.
Consider this brief excerpt from Chapter 10 (page 149):
Here's how another former employee explains the process: "Say you have a dog, but you need to create a duck on the financial statements. Fortunately there are specific accounting rules for what constitutes a duck: yellow feet, white covering, orange beak. So you take the dog and paint its feet yellow and its fur white and you paste an orange plastic beak on its nose, and then you say to your accountants, `This is a duck! Don't you agree that it's a duck?' And the accountants say, `Yes, according to the rules, this is a duck.' Everybody knows that it's a dog, not a duck, but that doesn't matter, because you've met the rules for calling it a duck."
There are so many other brief, equally revealing excerpts which I am tempted to include but won't. Earlier, I suggested that McLean and Elkind display in this volume many of the skills of a corporate anthropologist. I also commend them on their skills as storytellers. Of course, it helps to have many colorful characters and such an interesting narrative. Among business books, this is one of the rare "page turners." If Enron remains a classic example of organizational dysfunction, my guess is that this book will remain the definitive analysis of the causes and effects of that dysfunction.
The authors rightly spend the vast majority of the book examining the personalities and circumstances that allowed the company to become what it was at the end of its life. Mix a potion that's one part hardscrabble Harvard MBAs, one part energy deregulation, and one part hysterical bull market, and you've got a financial molotov cocktail. Sadly, as we all know now, it was largely the little guy who paid the price for all the hubris of the players in this story, a fact that tends to get lost in the authors' painstaking recreation of the most complicated shell game in history.
But the story of Enron's fallout could provide the material for a whole other book. In this one we get the tale of the players, people like Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Rebecca Mark and Andy Fastow, all filled with an equal mix of remarkable brilliance and fatal arrogance. All are indicted by these authors as rabid players in a game they made up themselves, deeming themselves beyond the petty world of rules and regulation. But coming in for equal excoriation is the system itself, the web of enablement and intimidation that allowed Andy Fastow to quietly hammer together the company's coffin in the form of a maze of phantom accounting entities designed to prop of the appearance of the corpse inside. The most unnerving theme the book treats indirectly is the effect of mass psychology--the way exceptional personalities distort and transform reality on a systemic scale. And it offers little in the way of how something like this could ever be prevented in the future.
One word of warning for people not acquainted with basic finance: this is a complicated story, about erstwhile geniuses in the arcane use of financial products and regulatory loopholes. Though it's enjoyable even if one can't follow every detour down each accounting scheme, some knowledge of Wall Street and its workings seems necessary to understand the implications of the book overall. Given the fact that most experts didn't understand what went on here, the authors do their best to keep things as simple as possible, often using helpful metaphors and simple summations after a few pages of analysis, but they have no choice but to assume a level of sophistication among their readers.
Which leads to one gripe. In "The Smartest Guys In the Room" not a single institution or individual player involved with Enron escapes the authors' finger-pointing notice, with but one exception. Where were the journalists in all this? Why did short-sellers have to be the ones to ask all the tough questions? Bethany Mclean should take understandable pride in being the first one to pry the door open on Enron's malfeasance, but she was just a little late. One would think that with the mass of financial journalists on CNBC, the Journal, the Times, etc., that just one would have bucked the collective cheering squad and dug deeper into what this supposedly invincible company was up to. But of course, this was the bull market. A time when everyone was exuberant when they should have been scared.