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Understanding Enron: It's About the Gatekeepers, Stupid

John C. Coffee Jr.

Columbia Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI); American Academy of Arts & Sciences

July 30, 2002

Columbia Law & Economics Working Paper No. 207

Debacles of historic dimensions tend to produce an excess of explanations. So has it been with Enron, as virtually every commentator has a different diagnosis and a different prescription. Yet, in most respects, Enron is a maddeningly idiosyncratic example of pathological corporate governance, which by itself cannot provide evidence of systematic governance failure. Properly understood, however, the Enron debacle furnishes a paradigm of "gatekeeper failure" - that is, of why and when reliance may not be justified on "reputational intermediaries," such as auditors, securities analysts, attorneys, and other professionals who pledge their reputational capital to vouch for information that investors cannot easily verify. This comment shows that, during the 1990's, the expected liability costs associated with gatekeeper acquiescence in managerial misbehavior went down, while the expected benefits went up - with the unsurprising result that earnings restatements and earnings management increased. Diagnosing the circumstances under which "gatekeeper failure" is likely leads in turn to prescriptions focused on re-aligning the incentives of gatekeepers with those of investors.

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Date posted: August 22, 2002  

Suggested Citation

Coffee, John C., Understanding Enron: It's About the Gatekeepers, Stupid (July 30, 2002). Columbia Law & Economics Working Paper No. 207. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=325240 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.325240

Contact Information

John C. Coffee Jr. (Contact Author)
Columbia Law School ( email )
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
212-854-2833 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)
B-1050 Brussels
American Academy of Arts & Sciences
136 Irving Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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