In a January 2009 USA Today article a business professor confesses to not understanding the financial crisis. His point, which is excellent, is that we sometimes act as if we understand the answer to a question for fear of appearing dumb. Each semester, in what must be an enlightening class, he introduces his “…students to a key idea: I want them to join me in the fight against the fear of looking dumb. Overcoming that fear can save them from serious traps.”
“In 2001, for example, Fortune magazine reporter Bethany McLean asked Enron CEO Jeffery Skilling a dumb question: How did Enron make money? Skilling attacked, calling her an ill-prepared incompetent. Yet, McLean’s article was the first to rightly ask whether Enron was overpriced…”
I thought of this article today, because I was reading about “India’s Enron,” Satyam Computer Services. The Satyam fraud is estimated at more than $1bn and may have been committed through the use of 13,000 fictitious employees. “The former chairman…inflated the size of the outsourcing company’s workforce by nearly one-quarter and siphoned off the wages of the fake employees…” according to the Financial Times (Why Analysts Failed to Spot the Books Being Cooked). Along with the chairman of the company, two PwC auditors have been arrested in connection with police investigations.
And here’s where the silly question comes in. When an analyst asked why a $1bn cash reserve (which apparently doesn’t exist) was not earning interest, the chief financial officer stated that the money is “…in overnight deposits and all that, so now we have placed them into normal-term deposits so next quarter onwards we will see that as part of the deposits.”
Go forward and ask the silly questions wherever you find them…