Perhaps the fallout from the first major decision of the Enron
Corporation should have served as a warning for the company's
future. As Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and others laid the groundwork
for a new energy giant, they consulted with a New York firm to
suggest a name for their company. Several months and millions of
dollars later, "Enteron" was the suggestion. It combined both the
international and energy aspects of the new enterprise. Everyone
seemed to love the new name.
Unfortunately no one bothered to check Webster's. "Enteron" is also
a word for the digestive tube running from the mouth to the anus.
Given that one of "Enteron's" major products was natural gas, the
choice of names made the new company a laughingstock. "Enteron"
quickly became "Enron."
As you journey through the pages of Kurt Eichenwald's CONSPIRACY OF
FOOLS, your analysis of the Enron tale will largely depend upon the
perspective you held before you turned to the first page of this
exhaustively researched and massively documented saga. Is it a tale
of well-intentioned businessmen who simply made bad business
decisions, or is it a saga of greed, corruption and corporate
America run amuck? After 600 pages of reading, there is ample
material to support either of those positions.
Although it has been more than four years since the collapse of
Enron, the paint on the portrait of its collapse still has not
dried. While several individuals involved in the debacle have gone
to prison, there has yet to be an actual trial that would allow for
public disclosure of many of the events that Eichenwald documents
in his book. Obviously, much of the account comes from first-person
interviews with many of the well-known actors in the financial
tragedy. A cynical reader might be justified in believing that many
of those interviews were self-serving attempts in advance of trial
to make individuals appear as innocent as possible. In CONSPIRACY
OF FOOLS we learn what happened at Enron from inception to
collapse. We just don't know why it happened.
This is not a criticism of the book, but an observation of its
style. Eichenwald has chosen to avoid dry historical narrative in
favor of the modern style of recreating dialogue, meetings and
scenes based upon anecdotal recollections of subjects all
conditioned upon anonymity. While that may diminish the overall
impact of the book, it certainly enhances its entertainment value.
CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS reads like a popular thriller, albeit one
without murder or mayhem.
Whether the Enron actors are criminals or dupes will be a matter
resolved by jurors in Texas courtrooms over the next several years.
Regardless of that verdict, however, it certainly is uncontradicted
that the players on this stage were by and large greedy, selfish
and arrogant. Andy Fastow, one of the Enron participants, already
serving prison time, was far more interested in negotiating a
severance package than either showing concern for the floundering
company he controlled or accepting responsibility for its
Even Sherron Watkins, the whistleblower elevated to heroine status
in the news, was far more interested in advancing her career
through her whistle blowing efforts than saving the company.
Eichenwald suggests that Watkins told Congress far more than she
possibly could know when she publicly testified about Enron's
activities. There are no heroes in this sordid history, an analysis
that leads one to believe that there will be more Enrons in our
future just as there have been Enrons in our past.
In 1841, Charles Mackay chronicled the investment bubbles and
financial shenanigans of the 17th and 18th centuries in
EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. So
prescient were Mackay's observations that the book remains in print
today and is often cited as one of the best books ever written
about investments and investing. Investment success has a synergy
of its own that yields more success. As investors experience
greater return they are less inclined to recognize or believe
warning signs that portend danger. CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS reminds us
all once again that while greed may be good for some, it is not
good for all.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 28, 2010