My Enron Ties

After the demise of Enron, I thought of all the ties to the company I have had over the years. They were originally known as Northern Natural Gas. It was an Omaha company that owned the pipelines that cross my farm.

My first thought when I learned of their troubles was that it served them right. When the lines were buried across the farm, they treated my dad and other landowners like dirt. The used every deceit in the book to get farmers to sign easements. After the papers were signed, they treated the land as their own. They left gates open so the cattle got into the crops. They cut fences in other places instead of opening gates. They left building materials in the fields that had to be cleaned up before fieldwork resumed. Those experiences were 50 years ago. I cannot forget them after so long.

When I graduated from college, one of my classmates with a business degree went to work for the company. He worked his way up to become CEO. He was a low key person who never became a high flier in corporate circles. I often wondered how such an unassuming person could ascend to the top of a major corporation.

Another brush with Enron came several years later when I was learning to use options. A financial advisor suggested that I try selling covered call options as a way to generate investment income in my motherís retirement account. The idea was to buy shares of a major company and then sell call options. If the price of the stock remained steady or went down, I kept the option premium. If the price of the stock went up, the option was exercised and the stock was sold for the strike price, which was always above what I paid for it. It was guaranteed income with no risk-almost.

I bought 100 shares of a small pipeline company called Houston Natural Gas for $44. I sold $45 calls on the shares. One day my advisor called me with the good news that Northern Natural Gas had bought out Houston Natural Gas for $60 per share. The bad news was that my calls were exercised for $45. I made a dollar but left $15 on the table because of the calls. It was my last experience with covered call options.

Many years later in 2000 my mother died at the age of 95. When the estate was settled I inherited a substantial amount of money. Most of it was cash at the local stock brokerage firm. The broker naturally had several good ideas of how to invest my nest egg. I told him that I was going to leave it in cash because I was anticipating buying a house in the country for my daughter and son-in-law.

That did not stop my broker from offering hot tips. One day he called with the news that Enron had hit $20 and was likely near the bottom of a long slide. I told him that my plans had not changed and to not call me with any more suggestions. Besides, natural gas prices had also gone down dramatically and it is never a good idea to buy stock in an industry where the raw materials are depressed. Within a couple of months Enron was bankrupt. The broker and I have had several discussions about his advice. Meanwhile, the farmhouse and acreage I bought with the money is worth more today than it was then and is generating steady income.

Another tie to the infamous company occurred in the 1980ís but did not come to my attention until the organization began to unravel many years later. I represented soybean farmers on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Agricultural Advisory Committee from 1985 until 1991. While I was one the committee, the chairman of the CFTC changed. The new chair was Wendy Gramm, wife of then Senator Phil Gramm. She got the appointment by virtue of her ties to the first President Bush. I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I donít feel that she ever really understood much about the futures industry. She certainly did not have the farmers' perspective.

At some point after her reign at the CFTC, she was elected to the board of directors of Enron. As an outside member, she was on the audit committee. If the other members of that committee had similar competency, it is not hard to understand how the directors lost control of the company. Wendy Gram was a pleasant person. She was probably a good economics professor when she was a member of academia. Her proficiency as a regulator left a lot to be desired. As a member of a government agency she probably did not do a lot of damage. As a director for Enron, I doubt that she did much that was beneficial to the company. It did not surprise me that accounting scandals slipped by.

The good news in all of this is that my classmate had retired from Enron in 1986 when the headquarters was moved from Omaha to Houston. He did not like the direction the company was going. He is now back at the helm of Northern Natural Gas. It continues to be profitable after being spun off from the defunct parent company.

I am not sure that this has anything to do with grain marketing. I guess it proves that no company is big enough to avoid being brought down by stupid mistakes. I hope it also proves that vigilance goes a long way in staying out of financial problems. I feel sorry for the many retired Northern Natural employees who lost their equity because of factors out of their control. It has hurt the economy of Omaha in a big way.