The debacle that could change the American way of doing business has already created its own comic mini-industry for professional comedians, wisecrackers and even the president of the United States, George Bush.
It’s a sign of the times when Bush can tell a joke about an auditing company outside of an accounting convention and expect a big laugh. ‘We have some good news about Iraq – it has opened its borders to weapons’ inspectors,’ the president drawled at a political rally. ‘The bad news is Arthur Andersen (sic) is doing the audit.’
The retort is Enron chairman Kenneth Lay has sold his shares in the company.
The only thing he owns now is the Bush Administration – a reference to the millions of dollars the company spent on lobbyists and direct contributions to politician’s campaigns, particularly Bush’s presidential push.
Not to be outdone, late night US network comedians like Jay Leno, have been taking aim at the disgraced Enron chief. ‘You know what Lay had for breakfast this morning? Shredded wheat,’ Leno jokes. Another comedian observed: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all of Osama bin Laden’s money was tied up in Enron stock.’
Laughter is one antidote for the scepticism and growing sense of anger felt by many investors at the litany of revelations exposing the breakdown in safeguards intended to protect them.
Every new detail about boardroom skulduggery, accounting malpractices, conflicts of interest or management’s voracious greed is eroding their confidence in the basic fairness and honesty of the capital markets.
The colossal bankruptcy, document-shredding and the parade of top executives making their inevitable rendezvous with the Fifth Amendment, the one that enables business executives to keep their mouths shut at congressional hearings, have provided a comic windfall, even if the laughter itself is becoming increasingly bitter.
Jeffrey Skilling, the chief executive who did decide to talk, had the comics laughing all the way to the bank when he announced that everything had been ‘absolutely, and unequivocally in good shape’ when he quit last August.
His attitude has been compared to a captain abandoning ship before his passengers with the reassurance that there’s nothing to worry about because no one is wet yet. Skilling then developed symptoms of the boardroom amnesia contracted in different circumstances by former Guinness chief Ernest Saunders.
A bit like the suspension of judgement that characterised the ‘buy’ recommendations of analysts who now admit they did not really understand the company, its balance sheet, management style or accounting methods.
Little wonder that even the man appointed by Bush to head the Securities Exchange Commission, Harvey Pitt, and some senior Republicans, are beginning to laugh out of the other side of their mouths.
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