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How ‘Margin Call’ Gets It Right About the Financial Crisis

Margin Call is the smartest movie you will ever see about the Financial Crisis. Debuting at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement seeks to make caricatured villains of bankers and much of the public puts the blame for a lagging economy squarely on their shoulders, this movie offers an extremely thoughtful, fair and—for that very reason—ultimately much more powerful critique of how our financial system really works.

It tells the story of a roughly 24-hour period at a fictional investment bank on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. In a sequence of events that mirrors what really must have happened at several real-world banks, a lowly junior analyst discovers that his firm’s dangerously high risk exposure to mortgage-backed securities could bankrupt the entire company and alarm bells ring right up the chain of command in an effort to avert disaster before it’s too late. By the movie’s finale, that effort has set in motion the inevitable system-wide collapse that we are all still dealing with today. Together with the film’s cast, the writer and director J.C. Chandor masterfully shows how each and every person up the chain of banking seniority would have to weigh difficult decisions and wrestle with the moral and financial consequences of their actions.

And herein lies the key to Margin Call’s truth: It examines the thoughts and motivations of individuals, resisting the easy narrative shortcut of lumping everyone responsible for the disaster into some monolithic, single-minded group. By doing so, Margin Call manages to do what almost no book, blog, newscast or Senate hearing has adequately done for the American people: to explain not just how the financial crisis happened (which financial giants failed in what order, which government entities bailed them out, etc.), but rather, to explain why it happened.

The standard trope about the crisis until now has generally been to point the finger at greedy banks and corrupt corporations. This isn’t an unreasonable reaction; when something as disastrous as the Great Recession happens, it is natural to want a bad guy to blame and punish. Hollywood, for its part, has always been inclined to this kind of Manichaeism—after all, every good story needs a hero and a villain. And the nefarious banker makes for a pretty perfect villain. Michael Douglas’s iconic portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street set the mold for this character, and a batch of post-financial crisis films have followed suit: from narratives like Wall Street 2 and Company Men, to documentaries like Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story.

The problem with this portrayal is that it simply does not reflect reality. There were no capitalist masterminds who were able to maliciously game the entire financial system, no conspiratorial “fat cats” who single-handedly brought about the crisis. That’s why there have been no major prosecutions of any of the leading figures of American finance: because they didn’t actually break any laws. (Investigations across Wall Street since 2008 have turned up a few cases of isolated fraud and some infractions of SEC regulations, but nothing that could possibly be seen as a major cause of the crisis). And this is the core dilemma that is so vexing to the American people. How can something so bad, that hurt so many people and caused so much damage, have come about without any overt wrongdoing? 

Margin Call attempts to give an honest answer to that question. There is no character in the film who breaks the law, engages in conspiracy, or does anything a reasonable person would label as unquestionably immoral. Even when the CEO of the film’s fictional bank makes the decision to sell all the company’s toxic assets—the act that literally sets in motion the complete collapse of the entire American financial system—it is an understandable, if difficult, choice. What else can he do? If he doesn’t sell first and start the catastrophe, someone else will. The outcome is inevitable, so what good could it possibly do for him to sacrifice himself and his firm and all his employees’ jobs if it makes no difference to the outcome? 

That is the core conundrum of what economists call a collective action problem. If no individual person or firm’s actions can make a difference, the only reasonable thing to do is assume everyone else will follow their most selfish (and possibly destructive) instincts. Everyone has an incentive to follow the worst path they suspect others of following, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This explains not only why bubbles burst, but also why they build up in the first place. After all, why did the big investment banks start packaging and selling huge amounts of the mortgage-backed securities that eventually triggered the crisis? Because all the other banks were doing it. They were seeking higher profits, of course, but profits are the raison d’être of any company and the basis of its survival. Each bank’s employees knew that if they didn’t get in on this extremely lucrative new branch of the business, they’d fall behind their competitors, their share price would go down, they’d get fired. 

Even if they thought the securities might crash at some unknowable point in the future, it would happen regardless of their own decision whether or not to get involved, and in the meantime it was their job to get the timing right for their shareholders and lock in profits before that bubble bursts. It was by this exact same thinking that so many millions of ordinary Americans bought or refinanced homes they couldn’t really afford in the expectation of making an outsized return on their investment. Virtue this was not. But in a capitalist economy, decisions aren’t made on virtue, they’re made on self-interest. These courses of action were logical on the individual level. The problem was that collectively they made everyone worse off. 

The difficult truth is that with systemic failures like the one that caused our current economic crisis there is no one to blame because everyone is to blame. The only enemy in Margin Call is the system itself. And not just the banking system, for the “real economy” or “Main Street,” as politicians like to call it, is just as dependent on Wall Street as Wall Street is on them. Wall Street exists, as one of the movie’s characters poignantly puts it, because the rest of society demands that it exist; they demand all the aspects of a modern, affluent civilization that an advanced financial system makes possible. Through our government and through our own actions in the marketplace, we all set the rules, we all took advantage of the massive expansion of cheap credit and affordable housing and ballooning asset prices, we all benefitted from the upside of the bubble, just as we are all suffering from its aftermath today. 

In the end, however, this sympathetic portrayal of the bankers’ dilemma offers perhaps the most damning indictment one can make of the modern capitalist financial system. After all, if such disaster can come about even when decent people are more or less trying to do their best, then the flaws of the system must run very deep indeed. It means that the problem can’t be fixed by just rounding up a few bad apples and throwing them in jail. The kind of collective action problem that brought about the financial crisis is exactly the kind of market failure where some kind of outside intervention is most appropriate and necessary—where it should be in the interest not only of the general public, but also of the banks themselves, for the government to step in and establish rules to prevent anyone from starting off a competitive cycle of ever-riskier behavior. And indeed, the bankers seemed to agree on this: After the crisis, all the major investment banks issued multiple statements supporting a move by the federal government to impose regulatory reform. 

The problem arises, of course, when theory gets translated to practice. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law was passed only over the objections of major banks, who are now advocating that large parts of it be repealed. Perhaps the banks’ statements in support of reform were just a cynical ploy to begin with, but that wouldn’t explain why essentially all major American banks complied with new international capitalization standards outlined by the Basel III accords (and actually met their requirements years ahead of the deadline) even though they reduced profit margins. The fact is bankers are astute to the flaws of Dodd-Frank. Many economists question whether some of its more controversial regulations will actually reduce systemic risk, or rather just create needless red tape and encourage risk to shift to other even more dangerously unregulated sectors of finance like hedge funds. Also, its stringent measures will not apply to foreign banks, thus putting U.S. firms at a disadvantage without removing the risk of a global meltdown. By contrast, economists were in near unanimous agreement that Basel III would reduce international systemic risk. 

Generally speaking, the best kind of reforms are those that avoid trying to predetermine exactly what kinds of financial transactions or activities should or should not be allowed, but instead seek to better align individual incentives with the collective interest—essentially to reward bankers for regulating themselves. Requiring individual pay to be more strongly linked to long-term investment returns and firm performance would be one step in the right direction, but even that strategy poses problems. Every new set of rules has limits and creates an incentive to skirt them or offload risk to overlooked areas. 

And this is the ultimate—and ultimately unsatisfying—conclusion of Margin Call: that there may be no true and final fix for the problem; that, to a large extent, it may be simply unavoidable that bubbles will build and burst, and that financial crises will continue to happen in any economy that resembles free market capitalism, for the instincts and behaviors that cause them are so basic to human nature. In the film’s ending scene, the bank’s CEO stares out over the Manhattan skyline and recounts for his junior analyst a near-epic list of the world’s financial booms and busts—dating back some 400 years. The message is clear: This has happened before, it will happen again. Human nature does not change. The real question to take away from the movie is not whether we should reform our financial and economic system to prevent another crisis. The question is whether we can at all. 

Daniel Krauthammer is a writer in Los Angeles.