September 2nd: Fun with Free Markets – Part 3: Greed is God

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181. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)

Shown by Channel 4 as a kind of partner piece to The Shock Doctrine this documentary seeks to show how one of the biggest and seemingly most successful companies in recent American history was the perpetrator of one of the biggest cases of fraud in the history of the stock market. I know that might sound a little dull, like it might not make for particularly interesting viewing but this is one hell of a story with a cast of reprobates so devious that they make Gordon Gekko look like Father Christmas.

Enron was a company that started out as a natural gas pipeline in Houston. By the time of its collapse it had expanded through the 90s to become an enormous corporation listed as a Fortune 500 company and ranked amongst their ‘most respected’ investments. That’s one hell of a story arc.

There’s a central cast of intriguing characters beyond the company figurehead and central fall-guy Ken Lay. There’s the neo-fascistic CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who reinvents himself from boardroom geek to macho business aggressor. The man responsible for implementing a ‘rank and yank’ employee system, you received a yearly rank of 1 to 5 based on your earnings for the company, Skilling mandated that 10-15% of the staff had to be a 5 and that they would be immediately sacked. There’s the mysterious Lu Pi, put in charge of an important section of the business he is revealed to be obsessed with strip-clubs and brought strippers to the office to prove his position to them. And then there’s Andy Fastow the man who invented companies who dealt purely with Enron, thus guaranteeing the appearance of a thriving business where one didn’t exist.

Enron used ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting techniques. This is a key thing to understand in the film, it’s central to their money making techniques. Not being an accountant I’d have to say that ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting sounded an awful lot like ‘Making shit up’, funnily enough that seems to be how it turned out too.

With an entertaining soundtrack and a story that has a little bit of everything this film surprised me because it was far more interesting and entertaining than I ever thought it could be. In the words of my least favourite person on the face of this planet (Richard Littlejohn), ‘You couldn’t make it up.’

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