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.

Technorati Tags:  ,

  • http://busmovie.typepad.com/ideoblog/2006/05/motive_we_dont_.html Ideoblog

    Motive? we don't need no stinkin motive

    On the heels of the Enron verdict, I wondered why the jury would have convicted Skilling on fraud but not insider trading – how could they think Skilling had enough knowledge for one, but not the other. Others wondered about