Last week, it was reported that director Oliver Stone dined with a
New York Times columnist at the Four Seasons restaurant; a place where
the top executives on Wall Street (the same guys who caused the
financial crisis exactly two years ago and it's fair to say the Great
Recession that followed) love to hang out and shoot the shit about
their unsavory business.
Stone, as everyone should know by now, is putting out the long-awaited
sequel to his mega hit movie Wall Street. This one is called Wall
Street: Money Never Sleeps. It is, of course, a fictionalized
account of the financial crisis (if you know anything about Oliver
Stone, you know that even his attempts at non-fiction are pretty
fictionalized), and based on the various interviews Stone has given
(including this one to the Times) he views the movie has one of those
teachable moments. On the two year anniversary of the bankruptcy of
Lehman Brothers and the broader collapse of the financial system that
followed, it is supposed to help us all understand something about the
men who led us into the abyss; namely what drove them in their pursuit
of greed at all costs.
Don't bet on it.
I haven't seen the movie yet (I'm supposed to go to the premier next
week) but based on some of Stone's own commentary, I may just wait for
the DVD. In his interview with the Times, Stone reminds us that, "Wall
Street's gone crazy. It's banking on steroids." (Not exactly news,
Oliver.) He fears that many of the Wall Street titans he's dining with
that afternoon think that "Stone must be a communist here, a
liberal; a liberal is worse than a communist." (That's an interesting
conclusion since as I show in my new book, Bought and Paid For, it was
the Wall Street brass who helped elect Barack Obama, his Liberal fellow
traveler, as president).
And just so we all don't think that the new Oliver Stone is that same
guy who came up with the most bizarre conspiracy theory to account for
JFK's assassination (and one of the most bizarre Joe Pesci
performances ever), he reminds the Times columnist that, "It's silly to
be simplifying and say Wall Street is evil," even if "Goldman Sachs is
evil, maybe." (I wonder what he thinks about Al-Queda?)
During the interview, Stone comes back to earth a bit with this little
gem: "Most of the people I know on Wall Street are good people. Like
my father. He really would like to make some money, yeah, but they
would also like to do good for society."
The only thing worse than a goofy, washed up director trying to
reclaim his greatness with a teachable-moment movie is a columnist
like this one, who rather than portraying Stone in his schizophrenic
best, just sucked it all in without once questioning Stone's sanity.
The new Wall Street movie might be entertaining, but given
its hype and the bizarre mindset of its director, I'm sticking with the
old one. The fact of the matter is, we don't really need another
teachable moment about the financial crisis. At least, not one that flows
through the brain cells of Oliver Stone or someone from the New
York Times who can't get enough of a washed-up director's illogical
view of the world, and it is my guess that after the initial hype has
passed, most movie goers will think the same.
Two years after the financial crisis, Americans face nearly 10
percent unemployment, mountains of debt, businesses that make money
but won't hire, and a president who found it part of his job
description to opine about a Mosque near Ground Zero while the economy
is falling apart. Wall Street greed, which seems to be Stone's
obsession, much like the rest of the media, is, to coin a journalistic
cliché, yesterday's news.
Note to Stone: We know these guys are assholes, and we probably don't
need to be reminded of it again during a 133 minute film.
What we don't know is how they became such assholes, and I'm pretty
certain Oliver Stone won't be shedding much light on that either.
Jimmy Cayne being "out of touch" with reality (Stone's description)
cannot fully explain why trillions of dollars of stocks, bonds, and
financial instruments derived from stocks and bonds were created and held
by his bank Bear Stearns with little regard that someday they might be
Yes, some people on Wall Street are "good people" (like we really
need Stone to point that out); but what is it that allows good, well-
educated people to do stupid things? Remember, when Jimmy Cayne was
CEO, the guy running Bear's bond department which was loading up on
toxic debt was a man named Warren Spector, one of the most
intellectually gifted traders on Wall Street. The guy taking charge at the risk
committee meetings was the legendary trader and risk expert Alan "Ace"
Cayne may have been a goofy, pot-smoking slouch who would rather
play golf than tend to the firm's needs, but what about Spector and
Greenberg? What made them think that buying mortgage debt in the
quantity they were buying it at as a massive housing bubble was raging
was such a good thing?
In other words, it can't be just greed--why would anyone, even the most
greedy Wall Street type, simply bet the ranch if the end result could
be the demise of their gravy train? They wouldn't of course. That's
because it wasn't just greed that motivated the Wall Street bankers to
behave as if they were on "steroids;" no matter how many movies in the
next year (I hear there are nonfictional accounts of the financial
crisis being shot as I write this) tell you so.
In fact, I bet if you can get a straight answer from either Greenberg
or Spector, or any other of the fallen Wall Street titans (like Dick
Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers) they would tell you that the
real reason they felt compelled to gamble as they did is because based
on past experience, they were all involved in a no lose operation. Wall
Street would never implode because the government wouldn't let it
Lehman Brothers failed in 2008, but it was bailed out in 1994 and
1998 by various government policies that inflated the financial system
with cheap money and turned losses into gains; same with Merrill
Lynch, Citigroup and the rest of the big firms. And that's what all
these movies and many of the books written about the greed merchants
Stone was dining with at the Four Seasons leave out: That it was next
to impossible for the financial system to accept so much risk as the
norm without the government approving of it all along the way. This
approval went beyond lax regulation that allowed firms like Lehman and
Bear to borrow more than 30 times the amount of capital they had on
hand to make market bets. It's an approval that comes only from a
partnership between government and Wall Street that dates back
It may surprise Oliver Stone to learn that most of those guys in the
Four Seasons aren't quite as right-wing as he thinks. They most probably
share his world view about government and business; namely how
bureaucrats like the former Fed President and current Treasury
Secretary Tim Geithner and his ilk (think Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson, and
Larry Summers to name just three) can make the world a better place by
working with Wall Street--protecting the markets when times get rough
as they have countless times during the past 30 years by bailing out
Wall Street with taxpayer money when it screwed up -- including the ultimate screw up in 2008.
Those bailouts gave Jimmy Cayne the confidence he could play golf and
leave the heavy lifting to Spector and Greenberg. Those bailouts gave
Spector and Greenberg the security to know if they bet wrong, the Fed
and the Treasury would come to their rescue by handing out cheap money
or free money to make things better.
Full disclosure: While I was at CNBC I spent a few minutes with one
of the stars of the new Wall Street film, Shia Lebeouf, who looked me up
through an acquaintance and wanted my take on what makes the typical
trader on Wall Street banker or trader tick.
Unlike most of the people he spoke with, I actually covered the
financial crisis on daily basis since its beginning and I reported on
both the implosion and the massive profits that began to be showered
on Wall Street following the bailouts as the government flooded Wall
Street with guarantees and benefits as it had done in the past.
If my memory serves me right, I told him it was the typical Wall
Streeters sense of entitlement that stands out the most in my mind. I
implored him to go to bars and restaurants around New York City where
they all hang out. Not just the places where their bosses dine and are
on their best behavior, but the places where the traders and bankers
who are not as polished take clients and watch them in action.
"Now that the bonuses are flowing they will act as if the whole
financial crisis didn't happen," I remember saying. My point being:
For them, losing money, getting bailed by the government, and making
money on the backs of taxpayers is the way the system is supposed to
work because it has always worked that way. Why should this time be
LeBeouf just listened intently. We spoke for about 15 minutes more
and he thanked me for my time. I'm not sure he understood what I meant
by all that, and I'm pretty certain his boss wouldn't either.