Enron Corporation is an energy trading and communications company based in Houston, Texas employing around 21,000 people (mid-2001). Fraudulent accounting techniques allowed it to be listed as the seventh largest company in America, and it was expected to dominate the trading it had virtually invented in communications, power and weather securities. Instead it became the biggest corporate failure in history, and emblematic of institutionalized and well-planned corporate fraud.
After a series of scandals involving irregular accounting procedures bordering on fraud involving it and its accounting firm Arthur Andersen, Enron stood at the verge of undergoing the largest bankruptcy in history by mid November 2001. A white knight rescue attempt by a much smaller energy company, Dynegy, was not viable.
The fall of the value of investors' equity per share in Enron during 2001 was from US$85 to 30 US cents. As Enron was considered a blue chip stock, this is an unprecedented and disastrous event in the financial world. Enron's plunge in value occurred after it was revealed that many of its profits and revenue were the result of deals with limited partnerships which it controlled. The result of this is that many of the losses that Enron encountered were not reported in its financial statements.
The firm's European operations filed for bankruptcy on November 30, 2001 and sought Chapter 11 protection in the US on that December 2. The long term implications of Enron's collapse are unclear, but there is considerable political fall-out both in the US and in the UK relating to the monies Enron gave to political figures (around US$6m since 1990).
Enron was formed in 1985 with the merger of Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth, engineered by Houston Natural Gas CEO Kenneth Lay. It was originally involved in the transmission and distribution of electricity and gas throughout the United States and the development, construction and operation of power plants, pipelines, etc. worldwide.
Enron grew wealthy through its pioneering marketing and promotion of power and communications bandwidth commodities, and related risk management derivatives as tradable securities, including exotic items such as weather derivatives.
As a result Enron was named "America's Most Innovative Company" by Fortune magazine for five consecutive years, from 1996-2000. It was on Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work for in America" list of 2000, and was legendary even amongst the elite workers of the financial world for the opulence of its offices.
Its global reputation was undermined, however, by persistent rumours of bribery and political pressure to secure contracts in Central and Southern America, in Africa and in the Philippines. Especially controversial was the $30bn contract with the Indian MSEB (Maharashtra State Electricity Board), where it is alleged that Enron officials used political connections within the Bush administration to pressure the Indians. On January 9, 2002 the United States Department of Justice announced it was going to pursue a criminal investigation of Enron and Congressional hearings began on January 24.
Former Enron CFO Andy Fastow, alleged mastermind behind Enron's complex network of offshore partnerships and questionable accounting practices, was indicted on November 1, 2002 by a Federal grand jury in Houston on 78 counts including fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. He and his wife Lea Fastow, former Assistant Treasurer, accepted a plea agreement on January 14, 2004. Andrew Fastow will serve a ten-year prison sentence and forfeit $23.8 million, while Lea Fastow will serve a five-month prison sentence and a year of supervised release, including five months of house arrest; in return, both will provide testimony against other Enron corporate officers.
John Formey, former energy trader who invented various strategies such as the "Death Star", was indicted in December, 2002 on 11 counts of conspiracy and wire fraud. His trial is scheduled for October 12, 2004. His supervisors, Timothy Belden and Jeffrey Richmond both have pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud and currently are aiding prosecutors in investigating this scandal.
As of 2004 charges were still pending against Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling.
The baseball stadium Enron Field of Houston, Texas, which was named after the company, was renamed to "Astros Field" to avoid negative publicity. The park's name was later changed to Minute Maid Park.
The fallout from the scandal quickly extended beyond Enron and all those formerly associated with it. The trial of Arthur Anderson on obstruction of justice charges related to Enron also helped to expose its accounting fraud at WorldCom. The subsequent bankruptcy of that telecommunications firm quickly set off a wave of other accounitng scandals, especially those of Global Crossing, Haliburton, Tyco, and Imclone. It thus set off the wave of accounting scandals that continues to engulf company after company, exposing high-level corruption, accounting errors, and insider trading even today.