Starting out my financial career during the heady pre-crisis era of excess, I experienced first-hand the business that many of my peers had come to idolize on screen in movies like Wall Street. Lines like Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” were repeated like a mantra, and it seemed as if every salesperson and trader on the Street was trying to emulate that kind of power and drive.
When it comes to accurately portraying life behind a Wall Street trading desk, there are a handful of films that get it right. The following is my attempt at a top 5 list of must-watch movies for any financial public relations professional.
1) Wall Street (1987)
A “no brainer”—and no, it’s not the one with Shia LaBeouf. The schizophrenic Transformers star hadn’t yet been born when the original classic was released. Michael Douglas’s famous monologue is memorable, but there are many great scenes that nail life on the Street in this cautionary tale of greed and excess.
This movie introduced a generation of future bankers to terms like merger arbitrage, activist investing and stock manipulation, while at the same time turning Oliver Stone’s morally corrupt Gekko into an unintentional cult hero.
Interestingly, the sliding ticker boards used in the movie quote stock prices in sixteenths, not decimal places like they do now. The change away from fractions occurred in 2001. If you work in finance and didn’t know that, you are probably a millennial!
Quote: “We’re all just one trade away from humility.”
2) Margin Call (2011)
“Hit the bid,” “tied up,” “offered better away”—a trading room has a language of its own. Margin Call is a movie that perfectly captures not only the attitude, but also the unique dialogue of a trading room at its most frantic moment—when the market is in the midst of collapse. The story centers around a fictionalized version of the mortgage bond crisis, as one firm inadvertently realizes that their inventory is worthless, and begins a mad dash to get out in front of the coming selloff. The final scenes in the trading room are some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen on film.
Quote: “For those of you who’ve never been through this before, this is what the beginning of a fire sale looks like. Obviously this is not going down the way that any of us would have hoped, but… the ground is shifting below our feet, and apparently, there’s no other way out.”
3) Rogue Trader (1999)
Rogue Trader tells the story of Nick Leeson, a broker at Barings Bank who is sent to Singapore to build out the firm’s Asian operation in the mid-90’s — and who ultimately takes down the entire bank by way of unauthorized proprietary trading.
We follow Leeson as one trade made to cover a mistake quickly spirals out of control and eventually becomes so large that the error account eclipses Barings entire market cap. Ewan McGregor plays the role of panicked trader perfectly, coolly covering for a massive fraud while getting further and further into trouble. This movie will help any financial novice understand how financial frauds, including the Madoff scandal, often have incidental beginnings.
Quote: “I, Nicholas Leeson, have lost 50 million quid…in ONE day!”
4) Too Big to Fail (2011)
If you slept through the financial crisis or otherwise have a hard time wrapping your head around the series of events that brought the global financial system to its knees, you should consider this HBO movie required viewing.
Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book of the same name, Too Big to Fail tells the story of the market collapse of 2008 from the perspective of the country’s top financial minds, with a particular focus on the actions of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and bank CEO’s Lloyd Blankfein, Dick Fuld and Jamie Dimon. If none of this sounds familiar, it’s time to do some reading, because you can’t have a solid understanding of where global financial markets are today without understanding what went wrong then.
Quote: “Last February, we were at 66 a share. Lehman Brothers is *not* Bear Stearns. We have a great business. Real estate will come back. I am not giving this company away!”
5) The Pit (2009)
For centuries, commodities speculation and trading took place in pits on the exchange floor – depicted perfectly in the comedy classic “Trading Places.”
These trading pits were once where the “middle-class” of Wall Street made a living; a pure meritocracy where traders without the formal educations of their investment banking peers saw fortunes won and lost.
This raw documentary centers on the transition from open outcry to electronic trading of commodities futures at the New York Board of Trade. The Pit offers viewers a rare look into a unique part of Wall Street culture that is quickly vanishing.
Quote: “These people are looking bankruptcy in the eye every day. It’s raw capitalism.”
By: Ted Smith