A chatty, overly long, but highly readable account of the collapse of Enron and the reasons the energy empire fell.
New York Times reporter Eichenwald (The Informant, 2001, etc.) is careful to separate what is reliably known from what can only be inferred in the Enron affair. Still, the narrative is rich in implication. Early on, for instance, Eichenwald ventures that top executive Andy Fastow threatened Enron head Ken Lay with some sort of exposure on being fired: “Had his chief financial officer, a man he had trusted implicitly, really been a crook all along?” Eichenwald quickly cautions that there’s much more to the collapse of Enron, an energy-trading firm that traded in many intangibles besides, than simple lawbreaking: “Shocking incompetence, unjustified arrogance, compromised ethics and an utter disregard for the market’s judgment all played decisive roles.” But then we’re back to crime or criminally stupid behavior: Here Enron execs are playing fast and loose with “squirrely numbers,” trying alternately to show profit where none existed or to hide profit, but sometimes paying far more tax than the law required; there they’re making incredibly poor investment decisions (“Skilling worked his jaw. . . . Seven billion dollars invested to earn $100 million in profits. Hell, if they had stuck the money in a bank account earning three percent, the earnings would have been higher!”). All the while, Lay hovers above the scene, merrily joining George W. Bush’s inner circle while apparently never quite grasping what was happening inside his own corridors of power—and placing trust in bad lieutenants, some of whom were “secret participants in Fastow’s schemes,” others of whom were simply bad. Interestingly, toward the end of the book, one of the few good lieutenants to emerge earns sidelong praise from Lay—namely, Sherron Watkins, the whistleblower who helped establish federal cases against the company and author of an early insider account of the debacle.
There’s a certain guilty, craning-to-see-the-accident pleasure in these pages, which could have benefited from a careful trimming. Likely not the last word on the Enron affair, but also likely to endure as a standard account.