Felix Salmon wonders:
The lessons of “Margin Call”: I don’t believe that Wall Street is meaningfully improving the lives of the 1%, except insofar as Wall Streeters are the 1%. (Remember that financial professionals make up only 14% of the top 1%, and 18% of the top 0.1%. They’re a large chunk, but by no means the majority.)… I suspect that the top 1%, if anything, are responsible for a disproportionate share of Wall Street’s income. Wall Street isn’t picking the pockets of the 99% and giving the proceeds to the 1%: it’s picking the pockets of the 1% and giving the proceeds to itself. And Wall Street is taking a whole bunch of money from the 99%, too. But for the 86% of the top 1% who don’t work in finance, I really don’t believe for a minute that Wall Street is helping them out by giving them the hard-earned money of the 99%.
I also don’t believe in some halcyon era when Wall Street was “an economic helpmate” to the 99%. It has always been very good at extracting rents, and very bad at creating wealth for its clients….
There are wealthy families who have managed to preserve and grow their wealth over many centuries — Italy and Germany both have quite a few of them, the ultimate Black Swan that was World War II notwithstanding. Those families tend to have a lot of real property: income-producing land, if you’re growing things like grapes or trees, is an amazing long-term asset, since the main rents you’re extracting come directly from the Sun. By contrast, the rich families who hire Goldman Sachs to look after their money and end up invested in Global Alpha or pre-IPO Facebook shares tend to be much newer money. They made it quickly, and they’ll probably lose it quite quickly too — it could quite easily all be gone within two or three generations.
This is one of the reasons why I’m less of a fan of Margin Call than Bernstein is. Where he sees “a running joke” that the big bosses don’t understand the nitty-gritty of finance and say things like “just speak to me in English”, I see a clumsy attempt at providing a bit of exegesis for the audience. Where he sees “ultimate irony” in Demi Moore’s defenestration, I see a risk manager who signed off on ever-riskier trades getting her just desserts. And where he sees the bank as an “economic predator”, I see it as a victim of its own greed. Yes, it causes considerable damage outside its own walls in its decision to conduct a fire sale of its toxic assets. But the alternative was for the bank to fail, and then, as we saw with Lehman Brothers, the damage caused would have been greater still….
[T]here was no bailout in this movie; indeed, there weren’t even any regulators. When the bank loses lots of money, it just keeps on going…. It’s a magical world where an insolvent bank can realize enormous losses and stay alive under exactly the same management and ownership. You have a mini-breakdown, you bury your dead dog, and you go back to your extremely well-paid job. In the real world, by contrast, Wall Street eats alive any bank which shows the slightest sign of weakness or potential insolvency…. When a bank makes an error of this magnitude, it dies — and the aftershocks, for the rest of us, are severe. Margin Call let the bank off easy — and America’s taxpayers, too.