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It's a Wonderful Life Explains the Financial Crisis

01/01/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Frank Capra's perennial Christmas movie It's a Wonderful Life is remembered mainly for celebrating civic and familial virtues. George Bailey sacrifices his dreams for those of others, but in the end receives the greatest rewards of all.

But George was also a good industrial economist. Reluctant inheritor of dad's Bedford Falls Building and Loan, he understood the institution's role -- to consolidate deposits into home loans, so Joe the debtor could escape the landlord tyranny of the evil Mr. Potter.

When Potter engineers a short squeeze and an angry run on the Building & Loan's deposits, George takes the town to school on economics 101:

...you're thinking of this place all wrong.
As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here.
Your money's in Joe's house...that's right next to yours.
And in the Kennedy House, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can.
Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?

Fine, fine, you say. What's that got to do with credit default swaps?

A lot.

The good folk of Bedford Falls were ready to take Old Man Potter's offer of 50 cents on the dollar, until George Bailey personally talked them down. People were confident in him and trusted him. Trust and confidence were the coin of the realm for JP Morgan, and for George Bailey, and are again today.

Say you start a bank with $10,000 in equity. You make a $6,000 loan. You've got $4,000 left. If you loan that $4,000, you're tapped out. That's when you discover deposits, aka liabilities, which let you make many more loans, aka assets.

The amount by which you can leverage your equity to make more loans depends on how stable your assets and liabilities are. If you make bad loans, your asset quality declines. If you take on bad liabilities -- securitized mortgages or CDOs, let's say -- then you may have to sell assets to cover your obligations.

Presto, there's your bank run.

The run may be driven by Bedford Falls' rubes, or by some Old Man Potter from Greenwich, but a run is a run is a run.

If someone doesn't trust your balance sheet, the whole structure unwinds. It starts out as a liquidity crisis. Then it morphs into a solvency crisis. Finally it is revealed for what it is -- a crisis of trust and confidence.

Is it really that simple? How could Hollywood possibly get something so much more right than the risk-meisters of Wall Street?

Yes, Virginia, it really is that simple. One thing Hollywood knows is that the true story is always about character development. The rest is just updated movie sets, hot off the street dialogue, and the latest "it" actors. But the thing that art imitates is -- life. Character. Trust and confidence.

George Bailey's character development lay in realizing his power to create trust and confidence in his community.

Any parallels with incoming presidents and the potential for good they may have exist strictly in the movies in your heads. (Which after all is where trust and confidence reside, not in risk models.)