July 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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