Had President George W. Bush decided to discuss 401(k) plans during last year's address to a joint session of Congress, he very well could have singled out Enron Corp. as one of the nation's most inspiring success stories. Sure, employees had sunk an average of 57% of their retirement funds into the company stock, but that statistic wasn't likely to have concerned the president back then. The 401(k) balances of Enron employees were bloated, thanks to a healthy spike in Enron's share price; between the first trading days in January 2000 and January 2001, Enron's shares had shot up more than 84%. At their peak in August 2000, they touched 90, more than double their price in the beginning of January. Needless to say, holding too much Enron was probably not a big concern for employees. No doubt, some were probably still buying shares in 2001, hoping for a bounce in both the market and the stock. Timing, as they say, is everything.

As the world now knows, those same employees, along with millions of regular investors, were left with pennies on the dollar on each of their Enron shares, thanks to backroom financial schemes that forced the company into bankruptcy. Now, Enron is the personification of all that's wrong with corporate America and 401(k)s, prompting the Bush administration and multiple members of Congress to push for protections for hapless employees who only wanted to make a buck on the success of their high-flying company.

Certainly, there have been many similar sad tales in the past about failed schemes of employee stock ownership. This time, however, the losses have hit home because of the noxious combination of seemingly lax regulations, fraud and the suddenness of Enron's demise. Many are shaken by even the suggestion of a serious threat to the nest eggs so many Americans now view as their primary source of retirement income. As a result, the real damage done to Enron employees' retirement futures has struck a deep chord with legislators and average citizens alike, who are left wondering, loudly and viscerally, whether the regulations governing 401(k)s are rigorous enough to prevent yet another such disaster.

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