In 2007 I took over managing all the money my husband and I had saved over our lifetime, even though I knew nothing about investing. Most of the money was in a 401K plan with my employer. I got laid off, was damned sure I didn’t want to keep that company’s stock, and so I had to do something else with it. We’d already had bad experiences with professionals too busy to answer the questions of folks with our meager level of savings, and twice we’d been directed into investments clearly not in our own best interest. There wasn’t going to be a third time. Not when everything we had was on the table.
So I spent the rest of 2007 figuring out how to buy stocks myself and, hopefully, how do it well. The jargon was overwhelming and the websites intimidating and the calls from other people who wanted to handle my money for me were relentless. I think it was the tenacity of those who wanted to get their hands on my savings that pushed me to persevere. I mean, if they were all that eager to do this, it couldn’t be that good for me, right? Then, well…..
I guess you all heard about what happened to the economy in 2008, didn’t you?
“The Big Short” is an emotional movie for me for many reasons, but the biggest is the way it attacks the veil of complication draped over modern money management. In an attempt to get the average viewer to open their minds the movie uses techniques like having a champagne-drinking blond in a bubble bath explaining what a sub-prime mortgage is and letting chef Anthony Bourdain tackle describing a Collateralize Debt Obligation as he makes a fish stew. Even after nine years of studying this stuff, there are parts of the movie that I still did not understand, so I can’t say they were totally successful making all of this simple, but it is an impressive attempt.
The movie is really three stories told simultaneously. Each one is engrossing and would have made a fine movie of it’s own. In fact my biggest criticism of the film is that I would have liked to have known more about each of the characters and more details about their story. The tales never really intertwine, and while I applaud the writers for honoring reality and not forcing connections where there were none, it does leave the viewer with the feeling of having watched three movies about a related subject at once.
That aside, I enjoyed the movie immensely. It is well written, well acted and a compelling look at how something could go so wrong with so few people noticing. The housing collapse itself is well explained; I just got lost in the nuances of how each of the characters ending up making money on the collapse. The wide variety of people shown profiting from the system makes the fair point that it wasn’t only greedy Wall Street bankers that brought this upon us. Pretty much everyone who had a chance to make hay while the sun shone tried to get theirs from a system that was spinning out of control, and this makes the whole mess all that more more understandable.
One can’t help but cheer on the movie’s three groups of small time investors who discover what is going on, who try to sound an alarm, and who are all ignored. It is hard to begrudge them their profits in the end. The movie does raise legitimate questions about why so few were punished for what eventually turned into fraud, and why the very richest experienced so few consequences while so many others down the food chain had their lives turned inside out.
In spite of these worthy themes, I feel that there is a bigger one here, and it is best voiced by Brad Pitt’s cynical former trader. Why does this system exist as all? I mean the question seriously.
Why doesn’t a stock exchange simply exchange stocks? You know, buy and sell them. Why can one short (bet against) a stock? That adds no value at all. Why can one trade options? Why can one use the stock market to engage in a host of other, far more complicated methods of gambling that add no value to the underlying companies but only serve to provide an increasingly convoluted casino? Does no one notice that this casino has rules that tilt in favor of those with much more to invest? Why have games been devised that are too complicated for the average player to understand? Is it primarily to provide income to those trained specifically to manage money?
If we are going to have corporations, let’s invest in them, not use them like sports teams for some kind of complicated fantasy football gambling fest. Worse yet, let’s not use them like a complicated fantasy football gambling fest in which you have to hire an expert to mange your team for you because the rules have become to complicated for you to understand. Isn’t our economy too important for this kind of nonsense? Most of the folks who lost their homes in the mess of 2008 surely agree that it is.
I could so easily have been one such person. I took a life savings and put it into a system I barely understood, trusting that the system would behave reasonably. What saved me was my own timidness. I split my sum into tiny parcels, directed most of the money to a variety of cautious endeavors, with all of them scattered across the spectrum of investments I was qualified to make. Basically, I drove like my grandmother. It was a good time for that, and I’m just plain lucky that I did. (I don’t always.)
At the very end of the movie, there is a hint as to why these convoluted games are not to our collective advantage. We all know that they provide for endless paths by which one can figure out a way to cheat the system. The movie is nice enough to point out a “new” investment vehicle which basically does what the Collateralize Debt Obligations of 2007 did. But hey, it’s now called something else. No one will notice the similarity, right?