Currently, the number of House and Senate committees investigating bankrupt energy trader Enron is comfortably in double digits. Most of them are specifically examining the role both Enron and its auditor Andersen, had in masking mammoth losses via the company's now-famous partnerships with jazzy code names like "Raptor."
Not that those who are presently occupying the hot seat and fielding questions from angry lawmakers shouldn't be there (in some cases several interviewees have requested a 'Fifth' more often than at an open bar), but I'm glad to see Democratic Senate leaders preparing to drag Wall Street into the debacle as well.
Specifically, they want to determine the method in which Wall Street structured and subsequently sold those limited partnerships and most importantly, why many of those same wirehouses and investment banks were issuing "buy" recommendations on Enron's stock, while the company's financial compass had, for some time, been pointed in a southerly direction.
I'm not a soothsayer, but I would imagine that questions would center on whether Wall Street urged investors to keep accumulating Enron stock in an effort to harbor their relationship with the now-bankrupt energy trader.
That's all well and good, but why potential Wall Street complicity in an eventual bankruptcy should be news to no one who follows the markets closely. After all, it's not like Enron was the first time "The Street" was ever accused of aiding and abetting a once high-flyer.
Remember six years ago, when rotisserie chicken chain Boston Chicken was a darling of The Street? A cadre of analysts from the top Wall Street firms kept pumping up the stock like it was the restaurant issue equivalent of IBM.
Lo and behold, a series of creative franchise "partnerships" (damn, there's that word again!) began to take it's toll on earnings. Still, many of the analysts continued to tout the stock. To no one's surprise, some of the heavier "buy" endorsements came from the company's trio of underwriters - Alex. Brown, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.
Subsequently, Boston Chicken earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first restaurant company to post a $1 billion loss, with investors getting the bird - literally.
As a postscript, this troika of underwriters recently agreed to pay part of a $19.4 million award to settle a class-action shareholder suit, which accused them and Boston Chicken auditor Andersen (gee, it hasn't been a banner year for them has it?) of hiding the company's financial condition. The suit also charged that the risks of said partnerships were not disclosed to investors.
Keep in mind no matter what goes on behind closed doors in a company boardroom or while compiling an auditor's report, you can't perpetuate investor fraud without a lot of help.
As for the Enron investigation, I'll leave it to the Capitol Hill folks to determine just how much help it got from occupants of a certain street in lower Manhattan.
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