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1.4 The Meltdown of 2001

The year 2001 will be remembered as the year of corporate scandals. The most dramatic of these occurred in the United States—in companies such as Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and others—but Europe also had its share, with debacles at France’s Vivendi, the Netherlands’ Ahold, Italy’s Parmalat, and ABB, a Swiss-Swedish multinational company. Even before these events fully unfolded, a rising number of complaints about executive pay, concerns about the displacement of private-sector jobs to other countries through off-shoring, and issues of corporate social responsibility had begun to fuel emotional and political reactions to corporate news in the United States and abroad.

Most of these scandals involved deliberately inflating financial results, either by overstating revenues or understating costs, or diverting company funds to the private pockets of managers. Two of the most prominent examples of fraudulent “earnings management” include Enron’s creation of off–balance sheet partnerships to hide the company’s deteriorating financial position and to enrich Enron executives and WorldCom’s intentional misclassification of as much as $11 billion in expenses as capital investments—perhaps the largest accounting fraud in history.

The Enron scandal came to symbolize the excesses of corporations during the long economic boom of the 1990s.Lindstrom (2008). Hailed by Fortune magazine as “America’s Most Innovative Company” for 6 straight years from 1996 to 2001, Enron became one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. Its collapse in December 2001 followed the disclosure that it had reported false profits, using accounting methods that failed to follow generally accepted procedures. Both internal and external controls failed to detect the financial losses disguised as profits for a number of years. At first, Enron’s senior executives, whose activities brought the company to the brink of ruin, escaped with millions of dollars as they retired or sold their company stock before its price plummeted. Enron employees were not so lucky. Many lost their jobs and a hefty portion of retirement savings invested in Enron stock. Because the company was able to hide its losses for nearly 5 years, the Enron scandal shook the confidence of investors in American governance around the world. Outside agencies, such as accounting firms, credit rating businesses, and stock market analysts had failed to warn the public about Enron’s business losses until they were obvious to all. Internal controls had not functioned, either. And Enron’s board of directors, especially its audit committee, apparently did not understand the full extent of the financial activities undertaken by the firm and, consequently, had failed in providing adequate oversight. Some experts believed that the federal government also bore some responsibility. Politicians in both the legislative and executive branches received millions of dollars in campaign donations from Enron during the period when the federal government decided to deregulate the energy industry, removing virtually all government controls. Deregulation was the critical act that made Enron’s rise as a $100 billion company possible.

In June 2002, shortly after the Enron debacle, WorldCom admitted that it had falsely reported $3.85 billion in expenses over 5 quarterly periods to make the company appear profitable when it had actually lost $1.2 billion during that period.“MCI, Inc.,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia (2008). Experts said it was one of the biggest accounting frauds ever. In its aftermath, the company was forced to lay off about 17,000 workers, more than 20% of its workforce. Its stock price plummeted from a high of $64.50 in 1999 to 9 cents in late July 2002 when it filed for bankruptcy protection. In March 2004, in a formal filing with the SEC, the company detailed the full extent of its fraudulent accounting. The new statement showed the actual fraud amounted to $11 billion and was accomplished mainly by artificially reducing expenses to make earnings appear larger. After restructuring its debt and meeting other requirements imposed by a federal court, the company emerged from bankruptcy protection in April 2004 and formally changed its name to MCI Inc. Even as it emerged from bankruptcy, industry observers anticipated that MCI would need to merge with another telecommunications firm to compete against larger companies that offered a broader range of telecommunications services. The merger materialized less than a year later, in February 2005, when Verizon Communications Inc. announced its acquisition of MCI for about $6.7 billion in cash, stocks, and dividend payments. MCI ceased to exist as an independent company under the terms of the merger, which was completed in 2006.

As Edwards (2003) notes, these scandals raised fundamental questions about the motivations and incentives of executives and about the effectiveness of existing corporate governance practices, not only in the United States, but also in other parts of the world, including, What motivated executives to engage in fraud and earnings mismanagement? Why did boards either condone or fail to recognize and stop managerial misconduct and allow managers to deceive shareholders and investors? Why did external gatekeepers, for example, auditors, credit rating agencies, and securities analysts, fail to uncover the financial fraud and earnings manipulation, and alert investors to potential discrepancies and problems? Why were shareholders themselves not more vigilant in protecting their interests, especially large institutional investors? What does this say about the motivations and incentives of money managers?Edwards (2003).

Because of the significance of these questions and their influence on the welfare of the U.S. economy, the government, regulatory authorities, stock exchanges, investors, ordinary citizens, and the press all started to scrutinize the behavior of corporate boards much more carefully than they had before. The result was a wave of structural and procedural reforms aimed at making boards more responsive, more proactive, and more accountable, and at restoring public confidence in our business institutions. The major stock exchanges adopted new standards to strengthen corporate governance requirements for listed companies; then Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which imposes significant new disclosure and corporate governance requirements for public companies, and also provides for substantially increased liability under the federal securities laws for public companies and their executives and directors; and the SEC adopted a number of significant reforms.