Friday, January 05, 2007

How much info is too much info?

For those of us who have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or simply followed the Enron scandal in the news, the whole thing was a pretty open and shut case. A bunch of greedy corporate executives cheated their hard-working employees out of their pensions while making off with millions. The crux of their crime came in not disclosing the true financial status of the company to investors, and to their employees. Case closed. Jeffrey Skilling goes to jail, Ken Lay down to hell.

Well, except that it's a little more complicated than that, says Malcolm Gladwell, as Malcolm Gladwell is wont to do. Gladwell points out that Enron's techniques for making speculative profit look real, and for garnering loans despite already being millions in debt were all in their financial statements and other public documents. Moreover, when reporters started calling to ask questions, the corporate suits would answer them. In short, this wasn't a case of lack of disclosure--the information was out there. (Among the more amazing facts in the public record was that despite their massive reported earnings, Enron paid absolutely no taxes for several years because, well, their earnings weren't real.) The point is that no one in the financial community pointed this stuff out until the very end. It's a slightly different view of what exactly it was that the Enron guys did, and while Gladwell doesn't question the sleaziness of the Enron execs, he does seem to be arguing that Enron was operating in the margins of truth, rather than peddling lies wholesale. He even points to a source that wonders whether the Enron guys completely understood what it was that they were doing. Then there's the larger point, as to whether or not an expectation of honesty--disclosure--is enough to keep track of business dealings. Says Gladwell, "the idea that the more a company tells us about its business, the better off we are... has become an anachronism." Gladwell points his finger back at the financial community and wonders whether in this day and age of complex business dealings, some responsibility doesn't also have to be placed at the feet of the people whose job it is to know about such things.


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