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The documentary “Inside Job” provides an eye-opening perspective on the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis (Ferguson, Beck and Bolt). Starting with an examination of Iceland’s disastrous outcome from deregulation of both their banking and environmental situation, it follows the cascade of events unfolding in the USA as well. It begins with the Great Depression, and details the evolution and devolution of regulation of the financial industry over the next three quarters of a century.
It makes a very strong case that both political parties, several presidential administrations, and regulators (among others) accommodated the major financial firms through several crashes. The documentary asserts that successive crashes were increasingly costly to the American public, and the world (Ferguson, Beck and Bolt). The variety of people interviewed respond in depressingly predictable ways to the questions. There is some very damning editing and cutting of shots and sequences.
However, even assuming completely manipulative editing, there is a convincing volume of evidence of, at best, irresponsibility, and selfishness on the part of financial movers. Viewers’ personal experience since 2008 will likely confirm the film’s accusations leveled at the top players in the financial field.
The root cause seems to be attributable to Reagan, who appointed Donald Regan, of Merrill Lynch as Treasury Secretary, and later, Alan Greenspan, the defender and advisor of the jailed Charles Keating, as Federal Reserve Chair. These actions seem, in retrospect, like setting the cat to guard the canary or the fox to watch the chicken coop. The film asserts that the 1980s were the start of targeted deregulation that permitted financial firms to engage in both lending and speculative activities.
By the middle of the last decade, the entire mortgage business had been transformed. The mortgage process had changed from being a face-to-face relationship with a local institution staffed by people who lived in the same community, to no relationship at all. Mortgages were sold and bundled together in larger and larger groups until the bundle themselves became a financial instrument that could be and was traded. In the process, an individual debt that was expected to be repaid transformed into an instrument made up of many mortgages.
There was pressure to issue more and more mortgages, many of them with inadequate income backing. Many of them would never be repaid. This was part of a trend towards creating financial instruments that permitted increasing speculation. The film hints that this was no more than gambling. The financial professionals were supposed to be pursuing the best interests of their clients. Instead, they seemed to be indulging their own ego with power, luxury, and vices like drugs and prostitutes (charged to their corporations).
They were also, perhaps, prey to an addictive response to money similar to the effects of cocaine on their brains. The result was that there was a proliferation of instruments, derivatives, and fabrications such as Credit Default Swaps, which had little or no value underpinning them. These were then purchased by entities on whose consistent performance depended many people’s comfort and security, such as pension funds.
When their lack of value eventually became clear, as a result of a default, there was a cascade of effects throughout the financial and real estate sectors. Suddenly, legislators became publicly upset and angry at the irresponsible behavior of the financial institutions.
The major institutions (e.g., Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns), were considered too large and important to the survival of the economy to be allowed to fail. The government stepped in and bailed them out, at immense expense to the public (Ferguson, Beck and Bolt). The effects are still being felt in jobs and earnings.
The film events
In the film, nearly everyone comes off as less than honorable. The academics that entered the financial world as advisors seem all too eager to scuttle back to their university jobs and get out of the glare of adverse publicity. Those who seem to have stood outside the action certainly had interesting and insightful information and opinion to offer. The employees of the financial firms – largely the beneficiaries of the scams and cheats – seem like weasels in a trap.
They appear stunningly more concerned about the appearance of wrongdoing than about their amoral actions and callous emails. The regulators and policy makers at the top, for example, Alan Greenspan, seem trapped by their ideology or previous affiliation (Ferguson, Beck and Bolt).
The staff of the regulatory agencies seems demoralized by repeated personnel cuts and opposition from the top people. Some of the ‘worker bees’ in the regulatory entities actually resigned in protest, in rare acts of honor and gallantry. The politicians seem full of bluster and self-righteousness. This seems hypocritical, since they would have had to approve the budgets that authorized the cuts in the regulatory agencies. Thus, they can hardly have been unaware that oversight of the financial sector was being eviscerated.
The finance and housing market’s ethics over the last several decades have been questionable. The goal of placing a person or a family in a housing situation suited to their income and prospects for future repayment seems to have disappeared. Instead, the financial industry’s goal seems to be massive personal enrichment without concern for borrowers’ welfare. The result is a high rate of defaults, foreclosures, and streets lined with decaying, empty houses.
The financiers responsible have not served the interests of the investors either, because these derivatives have no real value. Thus, these people did not fulfill their ethical obligations to anyone. In a real sense, because they were misusing their creativity and talents, they were not even fulfilling their obligation to themselves. The film offers both opinion and evidence of this massive failure of ethics (Ferguson, Beck and Bolt).
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Inside Job. By Charles Ferguson, Chad Beck and Adam Bolt. Dir. Charles Ferguson. Prod. Audrey Marrs. Sony Pictures Classics, 2012. Web.