The New York Times' Paul Krugman would have you believe that Enron and Cisco Systems are one in the same. True, Enron has filed for bankruptcy, and its main business was trading intangible things, and investors and analysts were too prideful to concede that they never knew exactly how the company made its money -- but that doesn't stop Krugman.
Cisco, of course, actually makes something. Cisco makes the machines that act as the backbone of the Internet, routing Web pages, e-mail, audio and video across the world.
That's not a strained comparison. Even when Cisco was riding high, an analysis in Barron's dubbed it the "New Economy Creative Accounting Exemplar." The company's specialty was using its own overvalued stock as currency -- paying its employees with stock options, acquiring other companies by issuing more stock. Thanks to loopholes in the accounting rules -- loopholes defended with intense lobbying -- these transactions allowed executives to progressively dilute the stake of their original shareholders, without ever declaring this dilution as a business cost.
The resulting illusion of profitability sustained the stock price, making more questionable deals possible. Some analysts flatly called Cisco a pyramid scheme.
You can find one of those analysts, and his report here. Is what Cisco has been doing truly a pyramid scheme? I'm not sure, the aforementioned report also makes mention of violation of antitrust laws by Cisco and Microsoft The report also accuses Citigroup, the new home of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, of practicing the very same "pyramid scheme" that Cisco is accused of.
Of course, Krugman only wants to address these issues as a method of attacking Bush. Which is fine, if not particularly beneficial, if his real goal is correcting the problem.
The truth is, the way Krugman explains it, that what Cisco has done seems no different than what AOL did with its purchase of TimeWarner. Krugman decries Cisco's inflated stock price, but many stocks are "overvalued" -- it' not as though Cisco is the exception. The reason why we are now calling the '90s the "tech bubble" acknowledges the fact that many stocks -- especially those dealing with computers or the Internet -- were artificially high due to investor mania. Has Amazon.com turned a profit yet? If it has, it certainly isn't in the black overall yet.
When Enron's financial house of cards collapsed, $80 billion of market value vanished. Cisco hasn't collapsed, but its market capitalization has fallen by more than $400 billion. Nobody from Cisco management ? ranked No. 13 in Fortune's "greedy bunch" ? has been arrested. But then neither has anyone from Enron.
Well, doesn't that seem like a big deal? The fact that Cisco hasn't collapsed? Maybe there is a fundamental difference between Cisco and Enron? Cisco produces something and Enron didn't.
Some cynics attribute the continuing absence of Enron indictments to the Bush family's loyalty code. But the alternative explanation is both innocent and chilling: Enron executives may have deluded and defrauded their shareholders without actually breaking the law. What Cisco did was definitely legal.
The "some cynics" is Krugman. And Krugman continues to maintain his position that Enron's going to get away with it, ignoring Fortune magazine's latest report that "The Feds Close In On Enron."
Under intense public and political pressure, government investigators have dramatically accelerated--and apparently broadened--their investigation of Enron.
In recent weeks, FORTUNE has learned, more than a dozen former company executives have been summoned by the Securities and Exchange Commission to give depositions in Washington by early September. Some defense attorneys are viewing the sudden deadline for high-level testimony in the complex case--after a lull that had lasted months--as a prelude to civil charges that could come in a matter of weeks.
Civil charges won't get you thrown in jail yet. But I don't think that criminal charges are that far behind.
Krugman does have some good points in his column -- regarding the expensing of stock options and executive compensation. But Krugman's main mode is "attack." He could be an excellent columnist if he was able to deal with the issues more in-depth and keep his attacks to a minimum.