What Would Opie Do?
Antidote for Enron's failings: Mayberry values
Many lessons will be drawn by investors, accountants, lawyers, and executives from Enron's implosion. But the most important correctives can be found on reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show."
Yes, the fictional town of Mayberry, like Enron, had the same potential for conflicts of interest and pressures for deceit; for pampering of protégés and whipping of whistle-blowers.
But somehow out of the sweetness of their hearts, Sheriff Andy; his hapless deputy, Barney; Aunt Bea; and little Opie avoided sweetheart deals. They untangled their clannish web of insider favoritism and kept each one another free of temptations while also unmasking deception.
In one episode, Opie tries to sell his bicycle, and Andy warns him to do "fair dealin' " and tell prospective buyers about the bike's defects. But when Andy then tries to sell his house and fails to mention its problems, Opie speaks a blunt but loving truth: "You mean kids should be honest, but grown-ups don't have to be?"
While a TV sit-com hardly is the same as a high-flying energy company where earnings growth was god, a big lesson from Mayberry is that all the rules and regs in the world - and the many new ones now being devised to prevent another Enron - won't work unless people act with integrity, compassion, and inner virtues. Checks and balances still need trust and honesty, and, oh yes, fair dealin'.
That's even truer today when companies are more diverse, relying on complex finances that allow for more cubbyholes to hide unwelcome data. Stock options for managers may compel them to find false ways to pump up stock prices. And demands for high performance force workers to fear failure and love cutting corners.
And professionals, such as auditors and lawyers, assigned to watchdog a company, are often compromised by the perverse incentive of having a stake in a firm's success.
Companies that rely on people with such values as integrity and openness, rather than solely relying on rules to compel those values, naturally don't exploit the ignorance of investors.
They don't hide flaws in fuzzy accounting, such as off-the-balance-sheet activities, even when the competition is doing it. They operate from principles that define specific rules.
"When I take a look at a company's annual report," billionaire investor Warren Buffett once said, "if I don't understand it, they don't want me to understand it."
Integrity, of course, can cut both ways. Investors and Enron employees put too much money at risk with their blind faith in Enron's future and the hype of its executives. Even former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling now claims he couldn't have known much about the off-the-books partnerships that were Enron's undoing: "I'm not the person who determines if there's a conflict. We have lawyers."
Investors can be protected only so much from the folly of their own unwillingness to examine a company's numbers for any foolery. They should know when they are over their heads in reading a financial statement or evaluating risk, and then make a dash for diversity in their portfolios. Investing should not be a game of chance driven by an appetite for short-term riches.
Another common Mayberry theme promotes the need for an independent frame of mind and a tolerance for failure.
A few Enron workers, such as Sherron Watkins, a vice president, sent up flares about how the partnerships had inherent conflicts of interest among their many overseers, and how these offered opportunities to hide company debt while also allowing a few to make millions deceitfully. Not all of Enron's truth-speakers were treated well. Mayberry's were.
All the business-school courses on ethics, or regulations, or well-written ethics codes like Enron's can fail unless workers can speak their minds and be treated fairly for it.
Here's another role model from the 1960s, but a real one: Harry Stanley was the only soldier at the My Lai massacre in Vietnam who did not shoot at a group of civilians - even when his commander stuck a gun in his gut and ordered him to shoot.
Why was his moral reasoning different? He simply saw no reason to harm the innocent.
Many in business today can ask a similar question: Is there really any reason to deceive investors?