Enron case a lesson in need for vigilance

The 24-year, four-month jail term handed down to former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling was harsh to Hong Kong ears. For the judge, the reasoning for such a tough sentence was straightforward, despite defence lawyers' calls for a seven- to 10-year prison spell: the crimes had imposed on many former employees and shareholders 'a life sentence of poverty'.

Enron was the seventh-biggest US company, with a market value of US$68 billion, before it went bankrupt in December 2001, wiping out investments, 5,000 jobs and more than US$1 billion in pension funds. The collapse symbolised all that was wrong with American corporate culture - corruption, greed and faulty accounting practices among them. Wall Street was sent reeling and reforms were put in place in the way companies report and audit finances.

Skilling's sentence was as much as an armed robber or serial rapist could have received, but in Hong Kong even a double-digit term would have been considered tough for white-collar crime. This does not mean our courts do not take fraud seriously; merely that under our common law system, sentencing limits and priorities have evolved differently. Nor does it necessarily suggest that we are not prepared for the possibility of an Enron-like scandal; some regulatory steps have been taken, most notably with the setting up next year of the Financial Reporting Council to investigate suspected fraudulent accounting practices. It remains to be seen how effective this will be.

While Hong Kong has not gone as far as the US in reining in errant accounting firms, it must be remembered that, like the legal system, financial regulatory bodies here have evolved differently to those in America. That is no reason to suppose, though, that corruption on the scale of Enron could not happen here, and alertness to such a possibility has to be high.

We have, after all, had our fair share of scandals, including the long legal saga following the 1983 collapse of property giant Carrian Group, the folding 15 years later of Peregrine Investments and the alleged inflating of revenues by 20 times of the Shenyang-based orchid grower Euro-Asia Agricultural in the four years before its Hong Kong listing in 2001. The latter company collapsed the following year.

The financial shape of mainland companies listing here is also a concern, given the scale of corruption across the border. Cross-border co-operation is essential when problems arise. There is still no rendition agreement between Hong Kong and the mainland, which means the return of suspects can be difficult.

Enron has amplified the message that corruption can occur in even the most respected firms and that the best preventive practices must be put in place. Hong Kong has taken some steps to achieve this, but authorities have to continuously strive to protect investors, workers and our image.