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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 21:35 GMT
Markets unfazed by Enron's failure
graph
David Schepp

Enron's rapid deterioration from energy-trading prodigy to free-market experiment run amok has left some wondering if a renewed push for US regulatory reform is not far behind.

Enron chairman Kenneth Lay
Enron chairman Kenneth Lay who now must shepherd his firm through bankruptcy
The collapse of the energy giant over the weekend has piqued the interest of lawmakers just as much as that of investors. But with Washington reluctant these days to dabble in the free market, the chances of Congress quickly wading into the murky morass left in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy filing are slim.

Lawmakers also remain cautious about intervening on Enron's behalf lest they become associated with the unscrupulous business practices of which the firm has been accused.

What is more, some view Enron's collapse as a good reason to call for wider adoption of clear energy-trading markets under which Enron became an $80bn (56.1bn) business just last year.

"Enron is a human tragedy, but it is not an impediment to transparent power markets," says Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Pat Wood.

"In fact, it makes the case to hasten their day," Mr Wood says.

Still, there are others who see that transparency as the reason for the energy crisis on the West Coast

California schemin'

It is precisely because Enron has been the poster child for energy deregulation that Californians, who have endured many months of fluctuating costs for electricity and natural gas, see little reason to mourn Enron's passing.

Last summer, angry Californians, among them Governor Gray Davis, blasted Enron for playing a significant role in the crisis that crippled energy delivery in the Golden State and caused its largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to file for bankruptcy.

California has since regained a level of stability within its energy industry, which may explain why members of the business community and citizens are subdued in their response to Enron's default.

"We are wrestling with our own situation," says Gregg Pruett, spokesman for San-Francisco-based PG&E, who says he can appreciate what the energy concern is going through.

One official at the state's Public Utility Commission, however, was less philosophical, saying Enron was dying from self-inflicted wounds but adding that no one really enjoys piling on to the firm's woes.

Moving forward

With California busy fixing its deregulated energy market and Congress more focused on the war in Afghanistan, what - if any - action taken to stabilise energy markets in the US is likely to appear low on the radar screen.

And regulators in Washington are confident that despite Enron's steep drop in share price, dropping from a high of $82 a share in January to Friday's closing price of 29 cents a share.

They point to energy markets outside of California that are operating just as they should, despite the loss of Enron, which accounted for as much as 25% of the trade in North American power and gas markets.

That is good for the energy market, regulators say, because numerous firms will move in take fill the void left by Enron.

"The exit of a major player is something that the industry can survive," says FERC's Wood.

"Enron got a blackened name," Mr Wood says referring to the allegation that Enron cooked its books. "The market does not like a player that does not have clean hands for whatever reason."

See also:

03 Dec 01 | Business
Firms admit $4bn Enron exposure
03 Dec 01 | Business
Enron files for bankruptcy
21 Nov 01 | Business
Crisis fears hit Enron shares
09 Nov 01 | Business
Enron admits inflating profits
05 Oct 01 | Business
Q&A: Bankruptcy made simple
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