Now it’s time for some cultural edification. I first became aware of “Margin Call” as a pre-production project two years ago when news leaked out that the principal actors, Kevin Stacey, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Jeremy Irons, were reading the Diary of a Mad Hedge Fund Trader to learn about the industry and get in character.
The plot covers a 24-hour period on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis at a fictitious Wall Street house obviously modeled on Lehman Brothers. A strategic downsizing sacks the firm’s risk manager, Stanley Tucci, who casually mentions to a young associate as he carries his cardboard box down the elevator that the firm is on the verge of getting wiped out in the subprime securities market.
A series of emergency, all night meetings ensue. At the last minute, the CEO, John Tuld, not to be confused with Lehman’s Dick Fuld, alights, godlike, on the roof in a helicopter, obviously clueless about what has been going on in his firm, and the instruments involved. The decision is made to dump their entire position at a huge loss at the market opening, even if it means causing the failure of many of the firm’s clients and counterparties.
When the sales staff rebel, they are offered extra million dollar bonuses if the positions are gone by noon. On orgy of predatory salesmanship ensures, which I have seen myself of trading floors a thousand times. In an hour, prices for some bonds drop 40%. The firm lives on to fight another day, but only at the cost of wiping out reputations and ending careers. The CEO has a laugh and flies away.
Those in the business will uncomfortably recognize many of the hard hearted practices, half-truths, and ethical lapses endemic on Wall Street. It really is only about making money and survival of the fittest.
Despite being a total flop at the box office on a limited release, the film is generating a lot of Oscar buzz, and it is certain to garner a handful of nominations. The acting is incredible. So if you have some free time over the holidays, order the DVD on Netflix. And hey, Kevin baby, have your people call my people and let’s do lunch when I’m in Beverly Hills in January!