Twenty Years Later: The Lasting Lessons of Enron

Michael Peregrine is partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, and Charles Elson is professor of corporate governance at the University of Delaware Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the dramatic and cataclysmic demise of Enron Corp. A scandal of exceptional scope and impact, it was (at the time) the largest bankruptcy in American history. The alleged business practices of its executives led to numerous individual criminal convictions. It was also a principal impetus for the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the evolution of the concept of corporate responsibility. As such, it is one of the most consequential corporate governance developments in history.

Yet a new generation of corporate leaders has assumed their positions since then; for others, their recollection of the colossal scandal may have faded with the years. And a general awareness of corporate responsibility principles is no substitute for familiarity with the governance failings that reenergized, in a lasting manner, the focus on effective and responsible governance. A basic appreciation of the Enron debacle and its governance implications is essential to director engagement.

Enron was formed as a natural gas pipeline company and ultimately transformed itself, through diversification, into a trading enterprise engaged in various forms of highly complex transactions. Among these were a series of unconventional and complicated related-party transactions (remember the strangely named Raptor, Jedi and Chewco ventures) in which members of Enron’s financial leadership held lucrative financial interests. Notably, the management team was experienced, and both its board and its audit committee were composed of a diverse group of seasoned, skilled, and prominent individuals.

The company’s rapid financial growth crested in March 2001, with media reports questioning how it could maintain its high stock value (trading at 55 times its earnings). Famous among these was the Fortune article by Bethany McLean, and its identification of potential financial reporting problems at Enron. [1] In a dizzying series of events over the next few months, the company’s stock price collapsed, its CEO resigned, a bailout merger failed, its credit was downgraded, the SEC began an investigation of its dealings with related parties, and it ultimately declared bankruptcy. Multiple regulatory investigations followed, several criminal convictions were obtained and Sarbanes-Oxley was ultimately enacted to curb the perceived abuses arising from Enron and several similar accounting scandals. [2]

There remain multiple important, stand-alone governance lessons from Enron controversy of which all directors would benefit:

1. The Smartest Guys in the Room. The type of aggressive executive conduct that contributed heavily to the fall of Enron was not unique to the company, the industry or the times. In the absence of an embedded culture of corporate ethics and compliance, there is always the potential for some executives to pursue “edge of the envelope” business practices, especially when those practices produce meaningful near term financial or other operational results. That attitude, combined with weak board oversight practices, can be a disastrous combination for a company.

Even though commerce has made great progress since then on internal controls, corporate responsibility ultimately depends upon the integrity of management, and the skill and persistence of board oversight. [3]

2. The Critical Importance of Board Oversight. As the company began to implode, Enron’s board commissioned a special committee to investigate the implicated transactions, directed by William C. Powers Jr., then dean of the University of Texas School of Law. The Powers Report, as it came to be known, outlined in staggering detail a litany of board oversight failures that contributed to the company’s collapse. [4]

These included inadequate and poorly implemented internal controls; the failure to exercise sufficient vigilance; an additional failure to respond adequately when issues arose that required a prompt and serious response; cursory review of critical matters by the audit and compliance committee; the failure to insist on a proper information flow; and an inability to fully appreciate the significance of some of the information with which the board was provided. [5]

3. Spotting Red Flags. Amongst the most damaging of the governance breakdowns was the failure to question the legitimacy of the related-party transactions for which so many internal controls were required. These deficiencies served to bring a once significant company and its officers to their collective knees and offer many lasting governance lessons. As the Powers Report concluded with brutal clarity, a major portion of the company’s business plan—related-party transactions—was flawed. [6]

These transactions were replete with risky conflicts of interest involving management. There was a significant “forest for the trees” concern—an inability to recognize that conflicts of such magnitude that required so many board-approved internal controls and procedures should never have been authorized in the first place. All this, despite the fact that the individual Enron directors were people of accomplishment and capability who had been recognized by the media as a well-functioning board. [7]

Yet, they lacked the actual necessary independence to recognize the red flags waving before them. Their varied relationships with company leadership made them all-too-comfortable with what they were being told about the company. [8] This connection made it difficult for them to recognize the dangers associated with the warning signals that the conflicted transactions projected. Indeed it was the revelation of these conflicts that attracted media attention and ultimately “brought the house down”. [9]

4. It Can Still Happen. The 2020 scandal encompassing the German financial services company Wirecard offers one of the latest high profile (international) examples of how alleged aggressive business practices, lax internal and auditor oversight, accounting irregularities and limited regulatory supervision can combine into a spectacular corporate collapse that prompted numerous government fraud investigations. It is for no small reason that the Wirecard scandal is referred to as the “German Enron”. [10]

5. A Significant Legacy. Yet the Enron controversy remains fundamentally relevant as the spark behind the corporate responsibility environment that has reshaped attitudes about corporate governance for the last 20 years. It’s where it all began—the seismic recalibration of corporate direction from the executive suite back to the boardroom, where it belongs. It birthed the fiduciary guidelines, principles, and “best practices” that serve as the corridors of modern corporate governance, developed in direct response to the types of conduct so criticized in the Powers Report. [11]

And that’s important for today’s board members to know. [12] Because over the years, the message may have lost its sizzle. The once-key oversight themes incorporated within “plain old” corporate responsibility seem to be yielding the boardroom field to the more politically popular themes of corporate social responsibility. And, while still important, corporate compliance seems to have had its “fifteen years of fame” in the minds of some executives; the organizational initiative has turned elsewhere.

But the pendulum may be swinging back. There is a renewed recognition that compliance programs can atrophy from lack of support. The new regulatory administration in Washington may return to an emphasis on organizational accountability. As Delaware decisions suggest, shareholders may be growing increasingly intolerant of costly corporate compliance and accounting lapses. And there’s a renewed emphasis on the role of the whistleblower, and the board’s role in assuring the support and protection of that role.

So it may be useful on this auspicious anniversary to engage the board on the Enron experience, in a couple of different ways. First, include an overview as part of formal director “onboarding” efforts. Second, have a board level conversation about expectations of oversight, and spotting operational and ethical warning signs. And third, reconsider the Enron board’s critical and self-admitted failures, in the context of today’s boardroom culture. [13]

Such a conversation would be a powerful demonstration of a board’s good-faith commitment to effective governance, corporate responsibility and leadership ethics.

Endnotes

1Bethany McLean, “Is Enron Overpriced?” Fortune, March 5. 2001. https://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2001/03/05/297833/index.htm.(go back)

2See, Michael W. Peregrine, Corporate BoardMember, Second Quarter 2016 (henceforth “Corporate BoardMember”).(go back)

3See, e.g., Elson and Gyves, In Re Caremark: Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences, 39 Wake Forest Law Review, 691 (2004).(go back)

4Report of the Special Investigation Committee of the Board of Directors of Enron Corporation, February 1, 2002. http://i.cnn.net/cnn/2002/LAW/02/02/enron.report/powers.report.pdf.(go back)

5See, Michael W. Peregrine, “The Corporate Governance Legacy of the Powers Report” Corporate Counsel, January 23, 2012 Monday.(go back)

6See, Michael W. Peregrine, “Enron Still Matters, 15 Years After Its Collapse”, The New York Times, December 1, 2016.(go back)

7F.N. 5, supra.(go back)

8See, Elson and Gyves, “The Enron Failure and Corporate Governance Reform”, 38 Wake Forest Law Review 855 (2003) and Elson, “Enron and the Necessity of the Objective Proximate Monitor”, 89 Cornell Law Review 496 (2004).(go back)

9John Emshwiller and Rebecca Smith, “Enron Posts Surprise 3rd-Quarter Loss After Investment, Asset Write-Downs”, The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2001. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1003237924744857040.(go back)

10Dylan Tokar and Paul J. Davies, “Wirecard Red Flags Should Have Prompted Earlier Response, Former Executive Says” The Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/wirecard-red-flags-should-have-prompted-earlier-response-former-execu tive-says-11612780200.(go back)

11Corporate BoardMember, supra.(go back)

12See Peregrine, “Why Enron Remains Relevant”, Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, December 2, 2016.(go back)

13Corporate BoardMember, supra.(go back)

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

One Comment

  1. nikhil ghate
    Posted Wednesday, April 14, 2021 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Hello
    I am writing to request if we can use this article ‘without making change of any description’ for internal training. This will mean we will host the article on our internal CPD (Continuous professional development) platform called LITMOS. This article perfectly suits learnings from a corporate governance perspective and hence we request permission for its unaltered use.
    Thanks
    Nikhil Ghate

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>