Crypto Collapse Shows No Lessons Learned From Enron EpisodeRoundup
tags: Enron, financial crimes, Cryptocurrency, Embezzlement
Gavin Benke is a historian and senior lecturer at Boston University and is author of Risk and Ruin: Enron and the Culture of American Capitalism.
To put it mildly, things aren’t good for Sam Bankman-Fried and his crypto exchange FTX.com, which recently filed for bankruptcy. Reporting on FTX — once viewed as a milestone in securing crypto’s mainstream legitimacy — suggests that Bankman-Fried may have mishandled users’ deposits in a doomed effort to keep his operations afloat. The former Treasury secretary and Harvard economist Larry Summers has likened FTX to Enron — and he’s not alone in seeing echoes of the disgraced Texas energy company, which became synonymous with white-collar crime after its failure in 2001. CNBC’s Brian Sullivan even tweeted that “FTX may be worse than Enron.”
Certainly, FTX’s collapse mirrors Enron’s stunning failure in uncanny ways. Executives at both companies made last-ditch efforts to save them through mergers. When the deals fell apart, Chapter 11 bankruptcy was the next step. In fact, the lawyer now overseeing FTX’s bankruptcy played a similar role in the aftermath of Enron’s demise.
However, the parallels between the two companies go beyond any potential acts of fraud. Enron’s rise and fall at the turn of the century was, in part, the result of the economic fragility at the heart of the information age. The FTX debacle suggests that this problem has only gotten worse in a world with social media.
When Enron crashed, it seemed to symbolize the perils of a new, opaque way of doing business. Over the course of the 1990s, Enron and its leaders became famous for claiming to have discovered a way to dominate the energy business without really getting into the messy, laborious processes that had heretofore been inherent to it. Instead of owning power plants, Enron managers like Jeffrey Skilling insisted that buying and selling energy-related financial derivatives contracts — basically agreements that would help industrial customers lock-in or otherwise manage unpredictable natural gas prices — was the future of the industry.
Skilling, the architect of this “asset-light” strategy, claimed to have cracked the code for making money from just about anything. In 1997, Enron even began offering derivatives contracts connected to the weather. It was audaciously complicated stuff.
Many on Enron’s own leadership team couldn’t explain the company’s operations to reporters and financial analysts, but that didn’t seem to matter. If anything, it was a bonus. The company’s 1999 annual report to investors actually celebrated peoples’ inability to describe the business.
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