A ''For Sale'' sign left as a joke January 26, 2002 hangs on the corporate logo outside Enrons headquarters in Houston, TX. Enron, now in bankruptcy, once held the number seven spot on the Fortune 500 list.
James Nielsen/Getty Images
December 2, 2021 1:06 PM EST

It’s the kind of historic anniversary few people really want to remember.

In early December 2001, innovative energy company Enron Corporation, a darling of Wall Street investors with $63.4 billion in assets, went bust. It was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Some of the corporation’s executives, including the CEO and chief financial officer, went to prison for fraud and other offenses. Shareholders hit the company with a $40 billion lawsuit, and the company’s auditor, Arthur Andersen, ceased doing business after losing many of its clients.

It was also a black mark on the U.S. stock market. At the time, most investors didn’t see the prospect of massive financial fraud as a real risk when buying U.S.-listed stocks. “U.S. markets had long been the gold standard in transparency and compliance,” says Jack Ablin, founding partner at Cresset Capital and a veteran of financial markets. “That was a real one-two punch on credibility. That was a watershed for the U.S. public.”

The company’s collapse sent ripples through the financial system, with the government introducing a set of stringent regulations for auditors, accountants and senior executives, huge requirements for record keeping, and criminal penalties for securities laws violations. In turn, that has led in part to less choice for U.S. stock investors, and lower participation in stock ownership by individuals.

In other words, it was the little guy who suffered over the last two decades.

Americans lost trust in the stock market

The collapse of Enron gave many average Americans pause about investing. After all, if a giant like Enron could collapse, what investments could they trust? A significant number of Americans have foregone participating in the tremendous stock market gains seen over the last two decades. In 2020, a little more than half of the population (55%) owned stocks directly or through savings vehicles such as 401Ks and IRAs. That’s down from 60% in the year 2000, according to the Survey of Consumer Finances from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

That could have had a large financial impact on some folks. For instance, an investment of $1,000 in the S&P 500 at the beginning of 2000 would recently have been worth $4,710, including reinvested dividends. Wealthier people, who often employ professionals to handle their investments, were more likely to stick with their stocks, while middle class and poorer people couldn’t take the risk. Without doubt this drop in stock market participation has contributed to the growing levels of wealth inequality across the U.S.

It became harder for companies to IPO

While lack of trust in the market is a direct consequence of Enron’s mega fraud, the indirect consequences of government actions also seem to have hurt Main Street USA.

Immediately following the bankruptcy, Congress worked on the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, which was meant to hold senior executives responsible for listed company financial statements. CEOs and CFOs are now held personally accountable for the truth of what goes on the income statement and balance sheet. The bill passed in 2002 and has been with us since. But it has also drawn harsh criticisms.

“The most important political response was Sarbanes-Oxley,” says Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University. “It was unnecessary, and it was harmful.”

In many ways, the legislation wasn’t needed because the Justice Department and the Securities Exchange Commission already had the powers to prosecute executives who cooked the financial books or at a minimum were less than transparent with the truth, Hanke says.

The direct result of the legislation was that public companies got dumped with a load of bureaucratic form-filling, and executives would be less likely to take on entrepreneurial risks, Hanke says. There is also much ambiguity in the law about what is or what isn’t allowed and what are the ultimate consequences of non-compliance. “You don’t know what you are facing in terms of penalties, so you back off of everything risky,” he says.

Quickly, that meant the stock market underwent two significant changes. First, fewer companies are listed now than since the 1970s. In 1996, during the dot-com bubble, there were 8,090 companies listed on stock exchanges in the U.S., according to data from the World Bank. That figure had fallen to 4,266 by 2019.

That drop was partially a reflection of the regulatory burden of companies wishing to go public, experts say. “It costs a lot of money to employ the securities attorneys needed for Sarbanes-Oxley,” says Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research and an economic historian. “Clearly, fewer companies can afford to meet all these requirements.”

Companies now wait under they are far larger before going public than they did before the Sarbanes-Oxley rules were introduced. Yahoo! went public with a market capitalization of $848 million in April 1996, and in 1995 Netscape got a valuation of $2.9 billion. Compare that to the $82 billion IPO valuation for ride share company Uber in 2019, or Facebook $104 billion IPO value in 2012.

Now, companies grow through investments that don’t require a public market listing and that don’t involve heavy bureaucratic costs. Instead, startups go to venture capital firms or private equity. The recent rise in the use of Special Acquisition Corporations (SPACs) is seen by some as a relatively easy way to skirt some of the burdensome regulations of listing stocks. However, SPACs do nothing to reduce ongoing costs or burden of complying with the Sarbanes-Oxley rules.

But when companies stay private longer, they spend more time without the public accountability required of listed companies. Former blood testing company Theranos famously remained private in a move some theorized was to avoid publicizing internal data. Because of the high barriers Sarbanes-Oxley placed on going public, the business world is now littered with large, private companies that don’t have to reveal their inner workings.

Delaying going public also affects Main Street because most individual investors cannot buy shares in companies that aren’t public. They haven’t been able to share in the profits from the speedy early-stage corporate growth that is typically seen in companies like Facebook and Uber.

Put simply, the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations have chased away some investing opportunities from the public market to the private ones. And in doing so have excluded small investors from participating—and gaining.

“Now smaller investors are shut out and all the big economic profits go to venture capitalists and the like,” Wright says. That, in many ways, is the legacy of Enron.

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