HIH: The inside story of Australia's biggest corporate collapse
John Wiley & Sons $29.95 pb, 256 pp
If you like business bodice-rippers, these are blissful days. After the host of books that emerged from the dot com Götterdämmerung, another wave of cautionary tales has hit the shelves. I reached for Mark Westfield’s HIH after reading my third book about Enron, Mimi Swartz’s Power Failure, and was struck at once by a casual coincidence: that both Enron’s Ken Lay and HIH’s Ray Williams insisted on being referred to as ‘Doctor’. In Lay’s case, this was on account of his PhD in economics. Williams laid rather flimsier claim to his honorific, after Monash University rewarded him for various endowments with an honorary doctorate in laws in 1999.
There are other similarities. Both grew up in humble circumstances in the 1940s, had formidable work ethics, arriviste tastes, and a weakness for gratifying them with shareholders’ money. But the pretence of those titles seems somehow emblematic of their claimants and the companies they hammered together: the claim to be something that one is not. Enron’s balance sheet resembled one of those eerily perfected Hollywood bodies: assets toned and chiselled, liabilities tastefully liposuctioned away.