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Reconciling the Skilling Verdicts

I have already read several commenters who have wondered how Skilling could be convicted of fraud (in the form of obscuring Enron's true financial health) but acquitted of most charges of insider trading.  Larry Ribstein (via Professor Bainbridge) asks

"Does this mean that the jury thought he didn't know enough about what
was happening to bar him from trading, but that he did know enough to
go to jail for fraud?"

Here is how I reconcile it:  The jury decided that Skilling committed fraud, but that it was not for personal gain in his stock.  How can that be?  What other incentive might he have?  Here is my explanation, based on some personal knowledge of Skilling and the Enron business model.

Enron's business model was Skilling's brainchild.  It was nearly 100% his baby.  He invented it at McKinsey and then moved to Enron to make it reality.  The trading model Enron adopted reflected Skilling's ability to handle a lot of complexity and his facility for numbers.  The failure of Enron would be a direct personal failure of Skilling's, perhaps the first and certainly the largest of his life.  Even without holding a single share of stock, Skilling had every incentive to want Enron to survive and in fact thrive.  Enron's failure would be a repudiation of his vision, a forceful proof that maybe he was not as smart as everyone thought he was.

Like nearly every new financial trading business, Enron at first enjoyed large margins on their trading deals.  This has happened throughout history, as the first traders who discover an arbitrage opportunity make lots of money.  However, over time, competition and general knowledge of the arbitrage opportunity tends to erode margins.  Eroding margins are a problem in every business, but particularly in trading.  Here's why:

Trading businesses typically make their money by executing huge transactions at thin margins.  These transactions require a lot of capital, and since margins are narrow, trading companies need to maintain a very low cost of capital.  For a company like Enron, this means maintaining a high stock price and platinum level credit to minimize borrowing costs.

The trap Enron fell into was not a new one.  As trading margins inevitably eroded (as described above) the company had to do more and more volume to maintain profits (it takes twice the volume of transactions when margins are halved to maintain profits at an even level).  But remember, Enron needed a high and growing stock price to keep its cost of capital as low as possible.  So it needed to show ever growing profits, which means in an environment of falling margins, trading volumes had to go up almost exponentially.  But, increasing trading volumes means more capital, much of it in the form of debt.  Borrowing more increased cash demands and put pressure on ratings agencies to downgrade their debt, which would have disastrously increased borrowing costs.  At the same time, falling margins and rising debt meant falling coverage ratios.    Old line trading firms like Goldman Sachs and Soloman Brothers have mostly avoided this trap by carefully husbanding and building their capital over decades.  But Enron tried to build the trading business too fast.

So you see the tiger Enron management was riding.  Any blip in their cost of capital, whether it be a fall in stock price or a downgrading of their debt, would crash the whole company.  But falling margins and a growing need for debt nearly guaranteed that their cost of capital was going to go up.  At first, management sought new growth avenues (e.g. broadband) or windfalls (e.g. California energy crisis) to make ends meet.  Eventually, management appears to have fibbed to bond and equity markets, in the form of false statements and burying the bad stuff in SPE's, trying to keep things from crashing.  Eventually, outsiders figured out what was going on, the commercial paper market dried up, and Enron faced a liquidity crisis that brought the whole thing down rapidly.

In this context, Lay and Skilling's obfuscation of the underlying financial health of the company makes sense.  Enron had reached a point where bad news about the business would do more than just depress the stock price - it could start a chain reaction that would bring the whole company to bankruptcy.  Knowing this, Lay and Skilling apparently sought to hide the true condition of the company, to try to buy time to find some way out.  Skilling, much much smarter than Lay, at some point probably realized that the crash could not be avoided and that's why he suddenly quit.  The tragedy (self-induced, of course) for these men is that nothing was going to prevent the eventual crisis, and Lay and Skilling bought a few months delay in Enron's downfall at the cost of what will probably be their freedom for the next several decades.

So, was Skilling a robber baron intent on nothing more than enriching himself at the expense of shareholders?  Or was he a visionary entrepreneur, who just couldn't accept that his dream and creation of over a decade's work was dying?  I don't really know, even having known the man personally, but the jury's verdict seems to point as much to the latter than the former.  And if it is the latter, has there ever been a visionary who was not the last person to admit his vision was a failure?  I can't tell you how many entrepreneurs I knew in the Internet bubble who were convinced their company was going to be successful almost right up to the day of bankruptcy.  Are we really better off as a society putting all these failed visionaries in jail?

I guess I end up with mixed feelings about the legacy of the case.  I certainly am worried about the prosecutorial abuse.  And cooking the books of a public company is bad and should result in jail time. Having worked once long ago with Skilling, I know for a fact that the man is brilliant and totally detail oriented.  There was no way he could not know about the SPE shenanigans, and for that alone he should face jail time.  My concern is that the other message, beyond just accounting fraud, of this case will be that we are criminalizing CEO's being overly optimistic about their company. And that strikes me as nuts.

Update:  Tom Kirkendall, who has been all over this case, has more here.  Larry Ribstein, whose question started this post, observed:

Many people think that there was so much loss associated Enron that the
guys at the center of it must have been villains. But they weren't
villains. The jury is saying they weren't even insider traders, as if
that would have made a difference. They lost as much as anybody, and
that's what drove them to lie, if they did lie. This doesn't make them
saints, but it should make even the most hardcore antibusiness types
queasy with the denouement of this tragedy. Locking these guys up for
pretty much the rest of their adult lives for being unable to face the
fact that their dream had ended is not the way a civilized society
would deal with this case.

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Let's Tax These Bubble-Driven Windfall Profits

A number of politicians are calling for taxing "windfall profits" driven by the "price bubble" in gasoline and oil.  Previously, I narrow-mindedly opposed this, arguing that the whole point of the pricing signal being sent is to call for new supplies, which won't happen if the government takes the money away from suppliers.

I say narrow-mindedly, because I have had an epiphany.  I realize now that it is indeed unfair for sellers to benefit from such a pricing bubble.  However, I think the politicians are wrong for looking at oil, since that bubble is only small potatoes.  I propose we start with the much bigger bubble:  In housing prices.  In a time of housing shortages, it pains my heart to Americans profiteering from artificially high prices.  Besides, oil companies actually do something useful with their windfall profits, like finding more oil; home sellers will just blow their proceeds on a big screen TV or something.

My proposal is that the government set a "fair price" for housing, based on a standard rate of appreciation.  The price of the house in a base year, such as 1970, adjusted for the CPI is a good starting point, but a process can be created modeled after Hawaiian gas pricing regulation to set up the exact standard.   Every house in the country then will be appraised.  Any house selling for or appraised for an amount above the 1970 price+CPI adjustment will be deemed as having reaped windfall profits.  The government is authorized to seize 100% of these windfall profits.  When this program is a success, we should then consider a retroactive program to seize windfall profits from the Internet stock bubble.

So, for all you who were supporting government intervention into gasoline pricing and profits, this must make you feel even better, since it is a much, much bigger bubble.  Right?  Or was it somehow more fun when Exxon was a target instead of, say, you?

Update:  I thought it was obvious, but I guess not from the email I have gotten:  I am being sarcastic here.  I would oppose a "windfall" profits tax on oil, houses, Internet Stocks, Pokeman cards, or whatever. 

The WSJ ($?) had this editorial on Saturday:

We keep hearing the word "bubble" to describe
industries with rapid and unsustainable rising prices. Hence, the
Internet bubble, the telecom bubble, stock market bubble, and now, some
analysts believe, a housing bubble. Yet for some mysterious reason no
one speaks of the oil bubble -- though prices have tripled in two years
to as high as $70 a barrel.

Reviewing the history of oil-market boom and bust
confirms that we are in the midst of a classic oil bubble and that
prices will eventually fall, perhaps dramatically. Despite apocalyptic
warnings, the world is not running out of oil and the pumps are not
going to run dry in our lifetimes -- or ever. What's more, the
mechanism that will surely prevent any long-term catastrophic shortages
in energy is precisely the free-market incentive to make profits that
many politicians in Washington seem to regard as an evil pursuit and
wish to short circuit.

The best evidence for an oil bubble comes from the
lessons of America's last six energy crises dating back to the late
19th century, when there was a great scare about the industrial age
grinding to a halt because of impending shortages of coal. (Today coal
is superabundant, with about 500 years of supply.) Each one of these
crises has run almost an identical course.

First, the crisis begins with a spike in energy prices
as a result of a short-term supply shock. Next, higher prices bring
doomsday claims of energy shortages, which in turn prompts government
to intervene ineffectually into the marketplace. In the end, the advent
of new technologies and new energy discoveries -- all inspired by the
profit motive -- brings the crisis to an abrupt end, enabling oil and
electricity markets to resume their virtuous longterm downward price

The limits-to-growth crowd has predicted the end of
oil since the days when this black gold was first discovered as an
energy source in the mid-19th century. In the 1860s the U.S. Geological
Survey forecast that there was "little or no chance" that oil would be
found in Texas or California. In 1914 the Interior Department forecast
that there was only a 10-year supply of oil left; in 1939 it calculated
there was only a 13-year supply left, and in 1951 Interior warned that
by the mid-1960s the oil wells would certainly run dry. In the 1970s,
Jimmy Carter somberly told the nation that "we could use up all of the
proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next

We can ridicule these doom and gloom predictions
today, but at the time they were taken seriously by scholars and
politicians, just as the energy alarmists are gaining intellectual
traction today. But as the late economist Julian Simon taught, by any
meaningful measure oil (and all natural resources) has gotten steadily
cheaper and far more bountiful in supply over time, despite periodic
and even wild fluctuations in the market.

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My Wife's Handbags up For Rising Star Fashion Award

I tried to warn you to buy one of my wife's designer handbags before she got famous.  It may be too late.  Next week she will be a finalist in the Phoenix Rising Star Fashion Awards:

Phoenix may not be an international center of fashion, but it is a hotbed of design.

The Valley brims with independent designers who make everything from
purses to baby clothes to yoga wear, all available at local boutiques
and/or online.

Three promising Valley designers will receive Rising Star awards on Thursday, given by the Phoenix chapter of Fashion Group International,
a networking organization for fashion professionals. Awards are given
in three categories: clothing, accessory and interior design.

(click image to enlarge)

Sorry, newspaper photos really don't scan very well.  They just had to use the chick with the guitar for the online article, so my wife's photo didn't make the online edition.  Many of her funky handbag designs are online, and I posted here about the last exposure of her designer purses in Yes Magazine.

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