Posted January 05, 2022
By Sean Ring
Why Character Matters
- Elizabeth Holmes was convicted of four counts of fraud.
- Her deceit fuels criticism of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and medical science.
- We must police our own.
London, Autumn 2001Mate, my companys shares are trading at $2. I think its a bargain.Dude, your company is about to declare bankruptcy. Its over. Save your cash.I remember that conversation like it was yesterday.The sequence of events that led up to it still makes me giggle.So here we go.When I moved to London in 1999, I immediately befriended a work colleague, AA. He was Australian, handsome, and loved pints of beer as much as I did.He had a beautiful wife and several beautiful girlfriends.But as I got promoted onto a trading desk, he was still stuck in operations.He was desperate to get out, as I was only 12 months before.As is the time-honored strategy to get on a trading desk, operations people sidle up as best they can.And sometimes, they overstep the mark.I was sitting on my desk one day, and the dealer board lit up.I picked up the phone.Hey, mate.Hey.I heard the swirling, gale-force wind that hits Canary Wharf in London, where our offices were.Where are you?Im outside. I just got sacked.Later that afternoon, I found out AA had sent a dubious email to his trader buddy, and the guy reported him to Human Resources.I was indignant on his behalf, as I didnt think - and still dont - people should get fired for sending joke emails even if theres objectionable stuff in them.Call me old-fashioned.Anyway, the question was what his next steps were.AA didnt have a finance degree or anything like that. He was just a smart, handsome Aussie dude. The kind of man British Human Resources professionals take a chance with.No idea why. (Wink, wink.)About a month later, he buzzed me on my old Nokia.Matey, Im so lucky. Things happen for a reason. Im so glad I got sacked. I just landed the job of my dreams!Awesome. Im so happy for you. Thats great. Who are you working for?Enron.This was September 2001, I hasten to add.
"We are the good guys. We are on the side of angels".Ah, Jeffrey Skilling.Remember that bastard?He was the CEO of Enron, formerly the seventh-largest company in the United States.What was scary about the Enron scandal was that the top 3 people running the company perpetrated the fraud.Chairman Kenneth Lay, CFO Andrew Fastow, and CEO Skilling were the guys who were found guilty.Lay had the good sense to die before he went to prison.But Skilling served 14 years in federal prison, and Fastow served six. Fastow cut a deal with the prosecutors. So impressed were they with his performance - that is, skewering his former colleagues - the prosecutors lobbied for a lower sentence.We still talk about that case in my graduate classes. Though the kids I teach were toddlers around the time the scandal broke, Enron has become a byword for fraud.And thats exactly as it should be.Richard Mayberry gets this right in his Uncle Eric books.Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property.This directive covers everything, really.Uphold contracts and dont rob people.Of course, my friend AA didnt benefit from working for people like that at his new company. He was looking for a new job a mere three months later.Heck, Enron used to stage their trading floor for CNBC interviews. That is, theyd pack it with people who werent traders just to make it look like a bank trading floor.Awful.And there was the issue of Skilling calling a fund manager an asshole for having the audacity to ask him where Enrons balance sheet was.This is what Skilling said about it:The specific fellow that I was not real happy with is a short-seller in the market. I don't think it is fair to our shareholders to give someone a platform like that they are using for some personal vested interest related to their stock position. I get a little exasperated with that sort of thing, and I want people to know I am exasperated.When in reality, he resorted to namecalling to cover up his fraud.I was positively thrilled when Skilling and Fastow went to prison. This wasnt a so-called victimless crime.Enron workers lost their houses betting on Enron stock because they thought Enrons Big 3 guys were the be-all and end-all of business.Sure, you can call them co-conspirators, but did they really know what was going on?Heck, Arthur Andersen, Enrons auditors, didnt call them out. (Auditors incentives are another topic entirely.)Investors lost billions of dollars.
Character and TrustCharacter is who you are, and reputation is what everyone thinks of you.Both are important, but character is controllable. Its upgradable.As a father, I tell my son every day, to tell the truth. Hes at that stage where he tries to wiggle out of everything.Good character leads to trust.And trust is critical to free markets.Lipton Matthews wrote a great article on this. Heres a quote:
Trust makes it easier to do business by lowering transaction costs. When entrepreneurs trust each other, they are likely to collaborate and reap the fruits of innovation. In a trusting environment, businesspeople form lucrative deals before signing a contract, knowing that both parties will comply with the agreement. For instance, Macauley (1963) argues that entrepreneurs rarely depend on legal enforcement to solve disputes and in many cases actually fail to create contracts stipulating conditions with customers.Trust greases the wheels of our economy.It genuinely makes the world a better place.Of course, there will always be the odd Enron scandal. Thats why its essential to prosecute these criminals as vigorously as possible.They genuinely stain the world we live in.And thats why Im thrilled Elizabeth Holmes got smacked in the mouth, legally speaking, of course.We cant have this sort of behavior go unpunished.Luckily, Theranos wasnt publicly traded, and most of the evaporated wealth was paper.But it couldve been much worse.May she spend a good decade or so behind bars.Until tomorrow.All the best,Sean