'Anatomy of Greed': Enron, from an almost insider

September 01, 2002|By Jay Hancock | By Jay Hancock,Sun Staff

Anatomy of Greed: The Unshredded Truth From an Enron Insider, by Brian Cruver. Carroll & Graf Publishers. 366 pages. $25.

Brian Cruver's book is the first tell-all dish by an Enron insider, a diligent piece of scribing produced in about six months. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much to tell.

His role at the energy company was negligible. The 29-year-old University of Texas MBA grad worked at Enron's "Death Star" headquarters, trying unsuccessfully to develop bankruptcy-risk derivatives, which were among the complex financial contracts the Houston firm specialized in. But he was far from Enron's most scandalous doings, in a job lasting less than nine months.

In Liar's Poker, about selling overpriced bonds at Salomon Brothers to clueless pension funds in the 1980s, Michael Lewis showed one needn't be in the boardroom to produce a great business memoir. But Cruver's Anatomy of Greed, while amusing at times, lacks the high wit and tighter structure of Liar's Poker, perhaps because Cruver had little time to write and less material.

Thus, to fill out 366 pages, he gives pointless descriptions of his dreams, being late for work and planning a lunch that gets canceled. He reprints long sections of unexceptional memos. Because he was laid off last December, his account of the 2002 Enron denouement -- Chairman Ken Lay's resignation, congressional hearings -- is a paste job of news clips.

Parts of Anatomy are engaging. Cruver's smart friend who covers Enron as a Wall Street analyst sees early glimmers of chaos.

I sat up when I read of Cruver's visits to a psychiatrist and the divorces and trophy wives of top Enron executives. Cruver dismisses his shrink as a bearded joke, an annoying concession to his fiancee, who thinks he's "stressed out." But there is a fine book waiting to be written about the psychiatric and familial damage caused by stock-option lust.

Even disinterested Enron buffs disagree on what caused the celebrated company's destruction. Cruver brings decent material to the debate. He arraigns the usual suspects: top bosses Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow. He describes the famous partnerships that allowed Enron to hide debt and inflate assets, although he states incorrectly that all the partnerships were technically legal and acceptable.

But Cruver shows that Enron wasn't just rotten at the top; it stunk to the core. By 2001, the business was largely about trading newfangled financial derivatives, many of which had no established market. Weather futures, broadband capacity rights -- nothing was too weird.

But with no markets, it was guesswork for Enron employees to accurately value these instruments on the books. Usually, Cruver suggests, the guesses had more to do with qualifying for bonuses than reality. Enron's fictional accounting was rendered in fine strokes as well as broad.

This was Enron's essential problem: Instead of pulling one way for shareholders, employees at all levels, unrestrained by any intelligent controls, tugged in a thousand different directions for their own interests.

Including our author. With Enron near death, he exploits the company's free-computer program for employees, cashes thousands of dollars in post-layoff paychecks he wasn't supposed to get and calls around the world on his Enron phone after the account was accidentally left active. Petty venality, perhaps, not grand greed. But part of a pattern.

Jay Hancock is a financial columnist for The Sun who began working life as a public relations operative for Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp. He was The Sun's diplomatic correspondent from 1999 to 2001 and its economic correspondent from 1995 to 1999. He has twice been a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award in business and financial journalism.

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