Enron Collapse: A Case Study in Audit Failure

August 29th, 2015

News broke in October of 2001 that energy conglomerate Enron was declared insolvent; the story that followed revealed the largest case of accounting fraud in history. As a result, Enron declared bankruptcy and one of the nation’s largest accounting firms Arthur Anderson was forced out of business. Analysts were shocked to discover how long Enron had been able to manipulate its reported earnings without discovery by auditors or the board of directors (Catanach. 2012).

Today it is still uncertain whether auditors from Arthur Anderson’s Houston office were compensated to overlook the numerous accounting discrepancies or instead, simply unqualified to decipher the unique accounting procedures developed by the Enron management. The catastrophic loss to shareholders and employees pensions serves as a warning to auditors of the devastation that inadequate accounting procedures can cause (Mclean. 2001).

As a result of the intentional manipulation of reported profits, sixteen Enron executives were convicted of defrauding investors. The primary defendant, company founder and financial advisor to President Busch: Kenneth Lay was sentenced to 45 years for his crimes, but died of heart failure before serving his sentence. CFO Andrew Faustow cooperated with SEC investigators and was sentenced to 10 years without parole for insider trading, tax evasion and defrauding investors. CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years. Accounting firm Arthur Edwards and several key employees were convicted of obstructing justice by shredding thousands of pounds of documents and deleting thousands of emails as the scandal made the news. The Arthur Anderson employee convictions were later overturned by US Supreme Court (Mclean. 2001).

The combined losses of over $150 billion dollars to shareholders, creditors and employee pension funds negatively impacted the US economy in a sum equal to that of every American man, woman and child losing $533 for 2002. Public outcry over corporate irresponsibility resulted in the drafting of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 which was created to address every loophole that Enron used to elude detection. Today SOA regulations dictate many of the federal accounting reporting standards and policies. Despite SOA guidelines, many privately held companies and several major publicly held companies continue to fail after earnings management schemes unravel (Jain. 2013).

The catalyst to Enron’s aggresive cycle of earnings management tactics was ignited by the deregulation of the electric power industry in the years prior to the scandal. With newfound freedom from government oversight, Enron management was able to sell hedge contracts on energy futures and report hedge values as actual sales; this practice greatly overstated annual revenue and gave the illusion of record breaking growth and profits. Enron management gradually created a highly competitive corporate culture that rewarded high performing employees for generating short term solutions that would make the company look good in quarterly reports and continue to attract investors and drive stock prices. Many employees even at lower and middle management received large percentages of their salary as stock options for hitting bonus levels or at least creating the illusion of achieving performance goals (Watkins. 2002).

The sheer complexity of accounting the true values of energy futures hedging using market to market costing and uncovering the management earnings schemes that were created by the 20,000 employee army who were all being encouraged to boost their bonuses by finding creative ways to manipulate Enron’s stock prices (Helman. 2013). The corporate culture snowballed out of controlled as management began to actively recruiting new hires who showed promise of financial creativity and also held flexible attitudes towards ethics, with this strategy the managers of Enron were able to create an ingenious army of professional corporate swindlers, and provided them a rich environment to capitalize on those talents. These and other factors created an accounting system so elaborate and deceptive that investigators had difficulty uncovering the flow of cash even after the scandal unraveled (Watkins. 2003).

Enron for several of their final years poached the best and the brightest performers from competing firms by offering salaries at twice the market rate being offered by competitors. Recruiting top talent combined with a policy of automatically culling the lowest 15% performers from the workforce every year generated a culture where every employee carefully avoided  bearing bad news and their mistakes or losses were swept under the rug to protect jobs (Watkins. 2003).

Not only were the salaries aggressive but perks and extravagant expense accounts made available jobs at Enron highly sought after. This ultra-competitive culture pushed all employees to find creative and innovative ways to inflate their own contributions to the company’s bottom line, at least for short term gains with little regard for long term repercussions (Jain. 2013).

A recurring theme to Enron’s development was the massive expansion into industries and locations that Enron was poorly equipped to compete in. The corporate background in supplying natural gas to the western US could not have prepared them for the projects they would undertake such as building a $900 million power plant in India that failed to ever produce revenue after disagreements with the government of India. Another failed “get rich quick scheme” was the Wessex Water Co in England which Enron paid $3 billion for and then offered its shares to the public in an IPO which lost nearly $100 million per month until its collapse in August 2000 (Watkins. 2003).

Possibly the nail in the Enron coffin was their overconfidence in their ability to provide the distribution of utilities to the public. In 20000 Enron invested billions in fiber optic technology to provide cable television and internet to over half the households in the US. The fiber optic division managed to lose over $10 million per month (Catanach. 2012)

Enron initially built a track record of performance while under the guidance of CEO from 1990-1996 Rich Kinder, a business attorney, who in comparison was credited for his conservative management style. Under Kinder’s leadership Enron earned much of the credibility that would later be used to attract investment capital and industry credibility. The talents of Kinder are later substantiated as the driving talent, as he later went on to build multibillion dollar energy conglomerate Kinder-Morgan (Mclean. 2001).

The rise and fall of Enron ends with the losses in billions of dollars to defrauded investors. These losses resulted from a decade of greed driven earnings management schemes that enabled Enron employees to participate in a Ponzi like deception of stockholder funds. A corporate culture is created from the top down and exaggerated by recruiting and hiring policies. One of the defining points of Enron’s downward spiral was hiring the most intelligent candidates who also exhibited a moral flexibility toward earnings management policies and held a Robin Hood disdain for constrictive industry regulations. While it is important that we hone our auditing policies to detect earnings management schemes such as those at Enron, we cannot overlook that a recurring theme is the human resources failure to screen out candidates who would overlook long term sustainability for personal gain for their share in the corporate greed (Watkins. 2003).

Work Cited

Catanach Jr., Anthony H., and J. Edward Ketz. “ENRON Ten Years Later: Lessons To       Remember. (Cover Story).” CPA Journal 82.5 (2012): 16-23. Business Source Premier.

Helman, Christopher. “10 Reasons Why Houston No Longer Cares About Enron Or Whether          Jeff Skilling Gets Out Of Jail Early.” Forbes.Com (2013): 1. Business Source Premier.          Web. 10 Jan. 2014 Web. 10 Jan. 2014.

Jain, Pravin. “Confessions Of An Enron Executive: We Lacked Finesse.” Emergence:           Complexity & Organization 15.2 (2013): 104-109. Business Source Premier. Web. 10 Jan.           2014.

Mclean, Bethany, et al. “Why Enron Went Bust. (Cover Story).” Fortune 144.13 (2001): 58-68.           Business Source Premier. Web. 10 Jan. 2014

Watkins, Thayer. “The Rise and Fall of Enron” 2003.            Web. http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/enron.htm

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