A Moral Lesson from Enron: The Fall of the Apparently Mighty
by Mordecai Plaut|
In July 1985, Enron was formed from the merger of Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth of Omaha, Nebraska, two gas pipeline companies that made a boring but steady income from transporting natural gas from the wells to the consumers.
Over the next 16 years, Enron transformed itself and grew, becoming a prestigious, aggressive growth company.
Just over a year ago, at the beginning of 2001, it was among the largest and most admired companies in America. Its revenues the previous year had been $101 billion. It employed 19,000 people worldwide and it enjoyed power and prestige as a result of its success. It was worth $70,000,000,000 in the stock market and seemed a rock-solid investment that was poised for growth.
It was known as a generous company in many ways. The sports stadium in Houston, its hometown, is named Enron Field. It and its officers were patrons of many charitable causes. Not the least recipient of its beneficence was the American political system: politicians of all sorts received sizable donations from the company and its top brass.
From this peak, the company plummeted to a point where it is almost hard to remember how proud and mighty it was just less than a year ago.
On August 14, 2001, Jeffrey Skilling, CEO and president of Enron, suddenly resigned for "personal reasons" after just about six months on the job. On August 22, Sherron Watkins, a vice-president of the company with an accounting background, submitted a detailed memo outlining serious problems she saw in Enron's accounting.
On Oct. 16, Enron revealed that it had lost $618m in the 3rd quarter. Also they took $1.2b in one-time charges, reducing the value of the company. On November 8 Enron admitted that its income for the past four years was overstated by $600 million.
On December 2, Enron filed for bankruptcy.
A committee appointed by its board of directors to study what happened concluded that a key part of its business failed because of "a flawed idea, self-enrichment by employees, inadequately designed controls, poor implementation, inattentive oversight, simple (and not-so-simple) accounting mistakes, and overreaching in a culture that appears to have encouraged pushing the limits."
A company that seemed to be a great American success story and on its way to the top fell, in just about three stunning months, to become an ignoble wreck.
Now there is a tremendous amount of attention in the United States focused on the debacle. It aims at finding out exactly what happened, who is to blame, and taking steps to make sure that nothing similar happens again.
Our interest is different. We are impressed again by the swiftness of the fall and the contrast. Truly the company fell from a high peak to a deep pit (Chagigah 5b). From an example of success it has become a lesson in hubris and greed and failure — and perhaps fraud. Where it seemed to be a champion of free markets, it has been exposed as a practitioner of the worst kind of abuse of those markets. Where politicians eagerly sought to be in its good graces, they are now embarrassed by all past contact with it.
We must take it as a lesson that appearances do not always reflect the underlying reality, that those who appear strongest may be swiftly brought down, and most importantly that just as the mighty can fall suddenly, so can the salvation of Hashem come in a blink, and we should await Moshiach Tzidkeinu daily, no matter how bleak things seem.
Related essay: Challenges of the Modern World: Life is Dear
To Contact Me
Back to main page