One of the more entertaining aspects of the current Wall Street financial crisis has been reading how some of the business columnists have been interpreting it.
Take, for example, Houston Chronicle business columnist, Loren Steffy.
Apparently confused by the fact that what happened to Enron has now happened to Bear Stearns, Freddie and Fannie, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, AIG and any number of other trust-based businesses impacted by the current credit crunch, Steffy reaches for insight from one of the fellows who set the stage for this mess:
Investigators are poring over the failed firms, looking for signs that executives misled shareholders. Some evidence may be found, but Sam Buell, the former prosecutor who led the effort to indict Enron’s Jeff Skilling, doesn’t think we’ll see widespread prosecutions.
“It’s not a conspiracy if everybody’s in on it,” said Buell, who’s now a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “In order to have a fraud conspiracy, you’ve got to have some effort by one group to deceive another group.”
In this case, individual investors may not have understood what Wall Street bankers were doing with complex debt securities, but those charged with safeguarding the marketplace were certainly aware. Regulators knew and approved. So did credit rating agencies. And auditors, both internal and external.
With a mouse click, investors could find public documents that described the debt instruments with hundreds of pages of detail. [. . .]
“If everybody’s in a bubble mentality, if they’re betting the price of real estate will keep going up, disclosure doesn’t address the problem of what happens when all those assumptions turn out to be wrong,” Buell said. “Everybody knows what they’re doing. They’re just making bad decisions.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Buell implies that Skilling was guilty of criminal conspiracy because not “everybody” was “in on it” at the time Enron was making its supposedly opaque disclosures. However, since “everybody’s in on it” now, Buell doesn’t think there will be widespread prosecutions because “[i]t’s not a conspiracy if everybody’s in on it.”
With such reasoning, is there any doubt now why this outfit generated this record?
For the record, I actually hope Buell is right this time that few businesspeople are prosecuted for misjudging business risk. But for a more rational explanation of how financial regulation fits into the current crisis, check out these Larry Ribstein posts here, here and here and this masterful one by Arnold Kling.