Great frauds in history: the collapse of Enron

Enron was energy company that was expanding aggressively, says Matthew Partridge. And the management was fiddling the finances.

935-skilling-634

Jeff Skilling was convicted of fraud

Enron was an energy company formed as part of a merger between two gas companies, InterNorth and HNG, in 1985. From 1987 onward it began aggressively expanding into newly deregulated energy markets across the US and the world, through both new ventures and mergers.

It also became involved in energy futures markets (which allow firms and investors to both hedge against and speculate on movements in energy prices) and attempted to become an important player in the telecommunications market.

How did this work out?

Although legitimate, Enron's businesses were unprofitable.To hide this, the management fiddled the finances.It treated the total amount of money traded on its energy exchanges as revenue, for example (the standard practice is to count only profits and trading commissions).It counted expected future profits from its deals as current profits. And to hide losses and mounting debts, it set up a complicated structure of off-balance-sheet "special purpose vehicles" to borrow money against Enron's stock.

What happened next?

While Enron's stock was rising, its creditors were willing to lend more money. But the bear market that accompanied the bursting of the technology bubble caused its share price to decline.

At this time The Wall Street Journal ran a critical article about Enron's accounting, causing other analysts to start to ask questions. With creditors now demanding repayment, and its credit lines drying up, Enron's executives were forced to admit that they had overstated earnings between 1996 and 2000, which made the problems even worse. After rival Dynergy abandoned its planned bid for Enron, the company filed for bankruptcy in December 2001.

Lessons for investors

CEOs Jeffrey Skilling (pictured) and Ken Lay were convicted of fraud and CFO Andrew Fastow (along with 12 other Enron executives) also pleaded guilty. Shareholders were wiped out, although the banks that facilitated Enron's deceptive deals paid some later shareholders around $7 a share (less than 10% of the peak value).

The Enron debacle shows it is a good idea to avoid firms that structure their finances in overly complicated or opaque ways. Insider selling is also a big red flag Enron's executives dumped their shares at the same time as encouraging their employees to use their savings to buy them.

Recommended

Green finance is set to be the most powerful financial repression tool yet
Bonds

Green finance is set to be the most powerful financial repression tool yet

The government has launched its “green savings bond” that offers investors just 0.65%. But that pitiful return is in many ways the point of “green” fi…
22 Oct 2021
Andrew Hunt: why it's a great time to be a deep value investor
Value investing

Andrew Hunt: why it's a great time to be a deep value investor

Merryn talks to Andrew Hunt, author of Better Value Investing, about his adventures in the market's dark underbelly, looking for the hated and neglec…
22 Oct 2021
Why fed-up workers are quitting their jobs
Economy

Why fed-up workers are quitting their jobs

Workers are leaving their jobs at an astonishing rate, especially in the US, leading to a shortage of workers. What will that mean for our economies? …
22 Oct 2021
If you want to get exposure to bitcoin, I have this great idea for you
Bitcoin & crypto

If you want to get exposure to bitcoin, I have this great idea for you

As bitcoin climbs to new highs, you can now buy a bitcoin ETF. But if you really want to get some exposure to bitcoin, there’s a much better way, says…
20 Oct 2021

Most Popular

Properties for sale for around £1m
Houses for sale

Properties for sale for around £1m

From a stone-built farmhouse in the Snowdonia National Park, to a Victorian terraced house close to London’s Regent’s Canal, eight of the best propert…
15 Oct 2021
How to invest as we move to a hydrogen economy
Energy

How to invest as we move to a hydrogen economy

The government has started to roll out its plans for switching us over from fossil fuels to hydrogen and renewable energy. Should investors buy in? St…
8 Oct 2021
Emerging markets: the Brics never lived up to their promise – but is now the time to buy?
Emerging markets

Emerging markets: the Brics never lived up to their promise – but is now the time to buy?

Twenty years ago hopes were high for Brazil, Russia, India and China – the “Brics” emerging-market economies. But only China has beaten expectations. …
18 Oct 2021