The film Margin Call (directed by J.C. Candor) is a thriller of the type that illustrates that violence and crime can be deadly without being bloody. It is a good portrayal of the mindlessness without scruples that is said to have dominated the financial markets during the last decades, leading eventually, to the present crisis.
The storyline: following the events of 2008, an investment bank is undergoing restructuring and, as a result, dismissing personnel. One of those who have to go is the head of the risk analysis department. Before he leaves, he passes on a USB stick to his staff with details of the assessments he has been working on. A young man completes the computer runs of his former boss and finds out that the firm has been trading with assets of low value for far too long. In case of further slumps, a margin call could potentially bust the bank since the losses would exceed its own reserve capital by far. (Sounds familiar?)
In a series of overnight meetings it is decided to proceed swiftly with the selling of toxic assets. Swiftly means first thing in the morning, i.e. before the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority realizes. The sell out will result in heavy losses, but profit will still be made considering the assets’ actual (no) value. The decision is successfully implemented. Most of the brokers who collaborate are then fired, since the firm must now rationalize, but they take home a fat bonus—that too was part of the deal. The same applies to one of the middle-level managers, the only woman on board, who agrees to take up the scapegoat role.
The most dramatic part of the movie is the language of its characters. This is not only vulgar but, above all, extremely impoverished both in scope and imagination. Even at the height of the confrontations, the younger of the junior analysts has mainly one thing in mind, namely, how much x, y or z are earning, ‘Jesus’ and ‘fuck’ alternating as response. His bosses are aware they have lost the overview and are doing wrong but they ‘need’ the money (!)—and ultimately they don’t think they should be blamed since they did issue warnings at earlier stages. Finally, the big boss, who admits he understands little about the computer simulations underpinning risk assessments, is only concerned about maximizing the firm’s profits and, when that is not possible, minimizing its losses—at whatever costs for everyone or anyone else.
It is this determined tunnel vision that is at the root of what has gone wrong in the financial markets during the last decades.
Yet, in its pursue of dramatic effect, the movie also commits the mistake of pointing fingers to a single (or few) wrong-doers. Had however this been the case, the crisis would have been comparatively easy to overcome. That this is evidently not possible has to do with the intricate ways it concurrently affects the financial sector, the real economy and political systems.
Not only did investment banks behave irresponsibly and, often, criminally; so did commercial banks; and, sadly, also states. That is the crux of the problem and why change will be laborious and only be brought about slowly.