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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Margin Call

We Never Learn

One particularly chilling scene in the outstanding new film Margin Call takes place when the CEO of a big banking house, played with cool detachment by Jeremy Irons, recounts the cyclical nature of the financial markets. As he ticks off the years when markets have tanked, including 1929, he calmly suggests it is just the way things work in the rarefied world of high, high finance. The biggest, toughest, most ruthless survive, he says.  It’s just the way the world works.

The movie, featuring a terrific cast including Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore, is an examination of one day in the life of a big Wall Street firm that finally must come to grips with its reckless speculation in the type of complicated financial instruments that even the big boss doesn’t understand. (In another great scene, the CEO interrupts a junior risk analyst to tell him that he doesn’t understand this esoteric, but widely profitable financial stuff, but to explain it so he can.)

In the end, the firm decides to unload its entire cache of toxic assets as fast as possible, settling for pennies on the dollar in order to save the firm and peddle, as Spacey’s character says, goods that they know are absolutely worthless. We are left to believe that the firm does survive, because as Irons’ character says at one point, there are three ways to make money in his business: be first, be smarter or cheat. He convinces himself that he is being first and smart – dumping the toxic investments before the markets wise up – but, of course, he is really cheating. We last see the self assured, but completely unself aware CEO lunching alone, enjoying undoubtedly an expensive bottle of wine, in the Executive Dining Room.

Lehman Brothers wasn’t so lucky. Writing in The New Yorker, film critic David Denby said Margin Call is the best film ever made about Wall Street. And Jake Bernstein, a reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing Wall Street practices that helped fuel the current economic mess, says the filmmaker J.C  Chandor actually doesn’t tell as corrupt a story as played out in real life. Bernstein does note that the CEO character in the film is named Tuld. Lehman’s CEO was Dick Fuld, a man that TIME has suggested should be remembered as one to blame for the current mess.

Chandor is “mining deeper truths than the intricacies of credit default swaps,” Bernstein wrote in a review of the film. “The societal costs of high finance, the power of self-rationalization, and the easy embrace of personal corruption is his terrain.”

Margin Call gets high marks not only for the superb cast and believable script, but, as Bernstein suggests, for the larger points it makes, including that the people who work on Wall Street, at least most of them, are decent, striving, ambitious and incredibly competitive. All the stuff of success in business. What is missing is any sense of proportion; any real self reflection. These folks convince themselves that what they do and how they do it is necessary and that they are worth the million dollar bonuses that they are promised for deceiving their customers. This lack of self awareness is at the center of the film and at the heart of the continuing utilization of massive Wall Street salaries and bonuses derived from essentially creating nothing but a market for investment vehicles even the CEO’s don’t understand.

Also near the heart of the Wall Street-inspired economic crisis that is soon to extend into its fifth year are two elements that history has repeatedly shown are always at the core of a crisis of capitalism: vast money and vast inattention; inattention by both the financial players benefitting from the “system” and the sleepy regulators who always seem a day late. In the end unbelievable risk is tolerated long past the point of reason and ethics and personal values are corrupted because the money is so incredibly appealing. And, as one character in the film notes, the firm should be able to dump its steamy mass of worthless, well, investments because the “feds” won’t wake up until it’s too late to act.  This level of inattention really is art imitating life.

The Hollywood press is abuzz with the notion that the Occupy movement will push Margin Call into serious Academy Award contention. Maybe. Hollywood is often as clueless about the real America as Wall Street, still as Denby wrote, “If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues. “

I came away from watching Margin Call thinking again that of the many, many tragedies in the current economic meltdown the one with potentially the most lasting consequence has been the abject failure of the current political class to explain what really happened, why it happened and to hold anyone accountable. Already what “reforms” were put in place in the wake of the Lehman collapse, the TARP bailout, etc. are having their hard edges sanded away. Gretchen Morgenson, another of the journalists who understands more about the ways of Wall Street than most members of Congress, reports, for example, that efforts to create greater transparency in the shadowy derivatives market are currently under attack in Washington. In other words, the people who helped bring about the current economic meltdown are resisting efforts to change their behavior. Self reflection works about as well on Wall Street as self policing.

“Wall Street,” Morgenson observes, “loves to do business in the shadows. Sunshine, after all, is bad for profits.” She quotes the great Wall Street investigator of the 1930’s, Ferdinand Pecora, as saying that then, as now, pitch darkness was the bankers’ stoutest ally.

Here is the real and lasting threat of the real life margin call we continjue to deal with every day: No real and comprehensive Congressional investigations have been done. No candidate for president – in either party – has offered a coherent explanation about what happened in 2008 and earlier. Americans across the specturm from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street are mad, and for some good reason, but not out of any comprehensive factual notion of what they should be mad about. Our political system has not, perhaps because of its own vested interest in the essential status quo, offered taxpayers and investors of the nation the explanation that is needed in order to try and correct a system that still presents tremendous risk to the national and world economy.

When members of Congress can speculate and personally benefit from insider information as CBS recently reported several members, including the House Speaker and Minority Leader, have there isn’t much Congressional incentive to crack down on the many, many abuses on Wall Street and in the financial markets.

So, we have once again set ourselves up to experience the obvious consequences of the cyclical nature of the way markets work. What goes up must come down. To the buyer beware. The markets self correct, even if there is a tad bit of economic dislocation associated with the correction. This hard time too will pass, as the Jeremy Irons character says in the movie, and we will go back to making money – by being first, being smarter or cheating. The old ways of money and inattention win again and always.

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