HUNT VALLEY, Md. (TheStreet) -- It is not my desire to promote paranoia or incite bitterness and hatred toward the financial industry, but as 50-somethings or older undoubtedly relying on Wall Street for retirement funds, your decisions will be better informed when you recognize one thing:
Most of those clamoring for your brokerage, banking and insurance business are following policies designed to enhance their corporate bottom lines, not yours.
If that isn't quite sinking in, you may want to watch -- despite its flaws -- the movie Inside Job.
I read Michael Lewis' The Big Short in January. That book was an insider's view of the financial collapse. It tells the story of the collapse in lurid (and often vulgar) detail, from the inside out, while Inside Job (ironically) is actually a retelling from an outsider's perspective, with the benefit of hindsight and complete with a catchy soundtrack and Matt Damon as narrator. It begins: "The global economic crisis of 2008 cost tens of millions of people their savings, their jobs and their homes. This is how it happened."
And if it stuck merely to "how it happened," I could've given it the highest marks. Instead writer and director Charles Ferguson chose to proffer, directly and through a great deal of implication, his thesis on how the crisis could've been avoided (through more and better regulation). That gives the film a less objective journalistic feel, but didn't cost it its two-thumbs-up rating from me (I'm sure they were relieved), nor did it stop it from winning last year's Academy Award for Best Documentary.
The film surprised me with a preamble set not in the struggling U.S. heartland or on battered Wall Street, but in Iceland. The story of Iceland's economic demise -- almost a microcosm of ours but in a country too small to bail itself out -- is fascinating, and the sweeping Icelandic landscape accompanying the story made me want to visit.
A few tidbits that grabbed my attention:
Investment banks -- the companies that raise money to birth companies -- used to be partnerships, not publicly traded. This is noteworthy because when the banks were private partnerships, if the companies they brought to life failed it was the partners' own money that was lost. The conversion to public companies -- initially spurned by most of the establishment firms -- meant, among other things, that investment bankers could make more money and spread the risk of each transaction to shareholders instead of bearing it themselves. Eventually, each of the major investment banking firms went public.
The last major investment firm to do so was Goldman Sachs (GS) (Stock Quote: GS). Goldman is so demonized in Inside Job that I was expecting Lucifer himself to be indicted as its CEO, but it's hard to argue in Goldman's favor. It is uncanny how many Goldman bigwigs ended up in senior government positions making decisions that materially affected their fortunes and those of their cronies. Don't forget, Henry "Hank" Paulson, treasury secretary during the financial collapse, was the former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Should we be surprised that his fierce competitors, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, were left to die on the vine while Goldman (which also played a material role in causing the crisis) emerged almost unscathed?
Unscathed, that is, but for their public image. The movie details the congressional hearing with Goldman execs where they were forced to hear emailed quotes of their salesmen writing "Boy, that Timberwolf was one lousy deal," followed by confirmation of a manager later reminding salespeople that "The top priority is Timberwolf." (Scenes such as the one where they squirm under questioning provide you with more pure entertainment value than you may have expected from the movie.)
But I assure you, this is far more than entertainment. Inside Job does a very effective job of educating the viewer on the dramatic shift in the banking industry, detailed in-depth in The Big Short, from banks lending money directly to homeowners to banks lending to homeowners, then selling the loans to investment banks who sold the loans to investors who then bought insurance created by the investment banks to cover their bets on poor-quality investments that were rated high-quality by the rating agencies who were paid by the investment banks. (It needs the visuals of the movie.)
And despite its obvious left-of-center lean, it's almost as condemning of Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as it is of Republican presidents George Bush (both) and Ronald Reagan. While "W" takes a lot of heat, the criticism of Obama may be the harshest -- after all, he employed many of the same people as the previous administration in the highest economic posts, all on a platform of "change." But try not to get too hung up on the politics or obvious bias of the film. It does too good of a job educating and exposing to dismiss.
Inside Job is PG-13, but tame enough for a great educational piece for teens. It will certainly become part of my curriculum (in addition to the movie I.O.U.S.A.) at Towson University.
You might do well to make it part of your curriculum as you gear up for retirement.