The story opens with a “bloodbath,” with heads rolling on the floor. A platoon of human resource, HR, persons is seen descending upon the trading floor of a century-old investment bank in Manhattan, with a long list of names to “let go.” They walk around and go through the motion of firing people. It’s bloodless, yet brutal — but quick. Within an hour, 130 from that floor are gone. That’s just for starters.
Unknown to all, the bank has been hemorrhaging: on its books are $1.2 trillion worth of “mortgaged-backed securities” whose values have been declining for weeks, on account of the crisis. At a certain rate, losses are projected to grow greater than the current value of the bank itself. Titanic is sinking.
Margin Call is to investing as “to the lifeboats!” is to shipping. (Well, roughly.) Either the bank pumps in more money or sells, and sells quickly. The story as told happens within a 24-hour stretch, and calls on the bank to “liquidate” all by noon of that day.
It’s world-class greed going awry. Our movie zooms in on the players, dramatizing each one’s behavior aboard a firm in near ruin. Everybody suffers, but some with fat severance packages. All but a few worry about losing their jobs and agonize over the thought, in true American fashion.
Chief Executive Officer John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) is bent on saving the firm no matter what. Ideas clash on how, hinting on the underlying values. To the unprincipled Tuld stands his decent, morally tentative antagonist, trading chief Sam Harris (Kevin Spacey). Tuld wants to rid the firm quickly of the “greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism” — or sell the worthless securities to all unknowing buyers. Cheat. You lose your long-time buyers afterwards, but you get to see your firm survive, at least for the moment.
Harris’s immediate boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), shares his CEO’s unconscionable demeanor. I think though that writer and director J.C. Chandor can scrap the character without the story suffering any loss.
What brought the bank to the edge, to begin with? We get only hints. We’re shown a scene where risk management chief Sandra Robertson (Demi Moore) is admitting to Cohen that the “formula is worthless”; “it’s broken.” Cohen: “There are eight trillion dollars of paper around the world relying on that equation.” Robertson: “We were wrong.”
Greed is reined in only by the risk of losing. You need a formula, plugged with the right data, to let you know in advance how close or how far risk is to reward, or to ruin. Then, you’re on your own, armed with faith in the correctness of your equation. Here in our movie is what happens if it’s wrong. Looking for somebody to blame for the mess, Tuld chooses Robertson’s head and “feeds” it to the Board.
The dialogue provokes an image that’s scary: global finance hanging tenuously by the strand of a model or a formula. It looks real, too, like the caveat raised by Warren Buffett for his fellow investors: “beware of geeks bearing formulas.”
In Magic Call, at least, it’s geek Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a 27-year old risk analyst, who figures out the problem first. Chandor needs the character to speak “in English” about it; “speak as [he] might to a young child or a golden retriever.” He helps us nail the conflict.
At way past noon, having dumped the “excrement,” the bank has been shored up from collapsing. We see Cohen telling Harris to send his people “home” in an apparent move to mop up his floor. The HRs are back.
What’s to learn from all this mess? For Tuld it’s no different from what happened many times in the past, “the same thing over and over again.” People cannot do much about it except to react, and “make a lot of money. “ “We might have put a lot of people out of business today, but we have been doing that for the past 40 years. It’s just money.”
“On Wall Street,” said author Roger Lowenstein in a separate story, “few lessons remained learned.”
Mario Galang is a specialist in development and governance issues.