Is Enron Overpriced?
In March 2001, FORTUNE pointed out that Enron’s financial statements were nearly impenetrable.
January 19, 2006: 11:34 AM EST
EDITOR’S NOTE – Remember when it seemed outrageous to suggest that Enron shouldn’t be the golden child of Wall Street? Before the congressional hearings, before Arthur Andersen was indicted, before the SEC and the DOJ got involved, FORTUNE’s Bethany McLean asked whether a company that traded at 55 times earnings should be so opaque. Here is what she wrote.
Is Enron Overpriced?
It’s in a bunch of complex businesses. Its financial statements are nearly impenetrable. So why is Enron trading at such a huge multiple?
By Bethany McLean
March 5, 2001
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) — In Hollywood parlance, the “It Girl” is someone who commands the spotlight at any given moment — you know, like Jennifer Lopez or Kate Hudson. Wall Street is a far less glitzy place, but there’s still such a thing as an “It Stock.” Right now, that title belongs to Enron, the Houston energy giant. While tech stocks were bombing at the box office last year, fans couldn’t get enough of Enron, whose shares returned 89%. By almost every measure, the company turned in a virtuoso performance: Earnings increased 25%, and revenues more than doubled, to over $100 billion. Not surprisingly, the critics are gushing. “Enron has built unique and, in our view, extraordinary franchises in several business units in very large markets,” says Goldman Sachs analyst David Fleischer.
Along with “It” status come high multiples and high expectations. Enron now trades at roughly 55 times trailing earnings. That’s more than 2 1/2 times the multiple of a competitor like Duke Energy, more than twice that of the S&P 500, and about on a par with new-economy sex symbol Cisco Systems. Enron has an even higher opinion of itself. At a late-January meeting with analysts in Houston, the company declared that it should be valued at $126 a share, more than 50% above current levels. “Enron has no shame in telling you what it’s worth,” says one portfolio manager, who describes such gatherings as “revival meetings.” Indeed, First Call says that 13 of Enron’s 18 analysts rate the stock a buy.
But for all the attention that’s lavished on Enron, the company remains largely impenetrable to outsiders, as even some of its admirers are quick to admit. Start with a pretty straightforward question: How exactly does Enron make its money? Details are hard to come by because Enron keeps many of the specifics confidential for what it terms “competitive reasons.” And the numbers that Enron does present are often extremely complicated. Even quantitatively minded Wall Streeters who scrutinize the company for a living think so. “If you figure it out, let me know,” laughs credit analyst Todd Shipman at S&P. “Do you have a year?” asks Ralph Pellecchia, Fitch’s credit analyst, in response to the same question.
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