Over the past few months, I have watched countless films about finance, from movies to documentaries to television programs. My aim: to identify the top 20 films on the basis of both their entertainment value and their educational value. Putting this list together has been a sobering exercise that has led me to an unfortunate yet inescapable truth: If the silver screen is any guide, financial professionals, particularly those working on Wall Street, have had a serious public relations problem since long before the global financial crisis of 2008. Only a single film that made my list, It’s a Wonderful Life, depicts a finance professional in a positive light — and that film was released in 1946.
Some might argue that Hollywood has had a hand in creating this negative image, given that media, especially films, “are key arbiters of public opinion, determining which activities, organizations, and people are valued and which are distrusted,” as the Harvard Business Review has pointed out. The extent to which the film industry helps create or merely reflects the public’s mistrust of finance professionals is debatable. These days, of course, that mistrust is palpable: According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, only half of respondents said they trusted banks and financial services firms “to do what is right.” Meanwhile, in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this week, 62% of respondents said that U.S. banks and financial institutions have fallen short in protecting against another global financial crisis. And our own CFA Institute & Edelman Investor Trust Study, published last month, found that just a slim and fragile majority of the 2,100 retail and institutional investors surveyed said they trust investment managers.
What has also struck me about depictions of finance in the movies is how very few films, particularly among the documentaries, suggest how to fix the industry and the financial system — something that CFA Institute is deeply committed to. Nonetheless, the films that make up my top 20 list are enjoyable to watch and often quite informative, offering an insider’s perspective on everything from options and futures trading to leveraged buyouts to the slow-motion collapse of a global investment bank.
If I missed one of your favorite finance films, leave me a comment — and let me know what lesson(s) you took away from it. I hope that viewing even just a few of these films can help inform the public conversation and debate that is so sorely needed about both the lessons of history and the future of our industry.
Here’s my list of the 20 most interesting movies, documentaries, and television programs about finance — divided into four categories:
The Finance Professional as Hero
The Finance Professional as a Gambling Man
Rogues, Con Men, and the “Greed Is Good” Set
Fallout from the Financial Crisis
Caution: Some of these films and programs contain adult language, nudity, and violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
The Finance Professional as Hero
Nothing speaks more plainly to the public’s perception of the finance industry than the fact that only one film on this list depicts a finance professional in a positive light. It should be noted, though, that while the hero of this classic film runs a community savings and loan, his arch-nemesis is a banker.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946; drama; 130 minutes; community banking)
A classic. Released in 1946, the year after World War II formally ended, it is both the oldest and the only black-and-white film on my list. James Stewart plays George Bailey, an all-around honest and lovable guy who manages a community finance operation, the Bailey Building & Loan Association. While in a heated argument with his powerful business rival Henry F. Potter, Bailey explains the ideas that shape his world view and his business ethics: “You’re right when you say my father was no businessman.
The Finance Professional as a Gambling Man
“So, in today’s parlance [on Wall Street], gambling is actually innovation, and clients are actually idiots,” Jon Stewart said in a 2010 episode of the American TV news satire The Daily Show. As much as it may sting when those in the entertainment field compare finance professionals to bookies (see the Trading Places clip below), it’s surprising (and unfortunate) how readily some finance professionals draw the same comparison.
Trading Places (1983; comedy; 116 minutes; commodity futures trading)
Two brothers who run a commodity futures brokerage make a bet to settle their argument over whether heredity or environment is responsible for a person’s character. The brothers arrange for a “scientific experiment” in which they switch the circumstances of a street hustler and their elitist executive. The executive falls apart in his life on the street, while the hustler thrives as a commodities broker
Billion Dollar Day (1986; documentary; 30 minutes; forex trading)
This BBC documentary is about a day in the life of three foreign exchange traders based in New York, London, and Hong Kong. On the one hand, the filmmakers seem to be in awe of the high life and relatively young age of the traders. On the other hand, they do not hide that they largely view these traders as gamblers. The documentary shows the traders in action, going long and short, quickly taking and closing large positions to cash in on narrow price movements. These traders are not working from any economic analysis but, rather, mostly their hunches about what other traders are doing. Together, the three dealers trade currencies worth US$1 billion and make a profit of more than £100,000.
Trillion Dollar Bet (2000; documentary; 48 minutes; option pricing)
This documentary tells the story of the Black-Scholes-Merton options pricing formula, physics envy in finance, and the collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM). It includes interviews with Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1997. (The Nobel Prize could not be given to Fischer Black, who died in 1995.) The effect of the formula on financial markets was far reaching. In the words of the narrator of the documentary, “Capitalism was on the march. The combination of mathematics and money, it seemed, was unstoppable.” The hedge fund LTCM was founded by a bond trader at Salomon, and Merton and Scholes signed on as partners.
Floored (2009; documentary; 78 minutes; floor trading)
Hear it from the Chicago traders themselves — who tell it like it is, with lots of swearing and cigars. This documentary is also a chapter in financial history; it’s about a profession that technology has made largely obsolete — floor trading. It shows how the brutally competitive and in-person floor trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange worked. There are a number of surprising quirks to the culture. Floor traders had their cliques, based on which part of the city they lived in or their ethnicity or even their religion. Many traders earned a living by trading on their own account.
Wall Street Warriors (2006–; documentary series; 30 minutes each; entrepreneurship)
This documentary series covers the lives of real and ambitious people who are trying to succeed on Wall Street. It features the analyst, the day trader, the options broker, the stockbroker, the fund manager, the dealmaker, and more. Men and women of different ethnicities and from different countries of origin — they are all on Wall Street to compete and to win.
Wall Street (1987; drama; 126 minutes; insider trading)
This is the CAPM of finance films: Everyone in finance is supposed to know it, and whether it is any good is no longer the point. The film is about making fast money, and a lot of it, through insider trading. In its depth and intensity, this film towers above the finance films that came soon before or after, like Quicksilver (1986; 99 minutes; options trading) and Working Girl (1988; 115 minutes; mergers and acquisitions). It is hard to find a list of top finance films that does not have this one at or near the top — and the iconic status of the villain, Gordon Gekko, raises troubling questions about the finance industry. These brief lines are strongly associated with the film: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.
Other People’s Money (1991; comedy; 103 minutes; corporate takeover)
This comedy depicts a clash between the so-called real economy and the financial markets as a corporate raider with his free market ethos takes on a family business with traditional values. A manufacturing unit is facing obsolescence, and the question is whether the unit and the jobs it has created will be liquidated to satisfy the shareholders or whether there is some way to return it to profitability. The film has a number of finance lessons to offer, particularly in company valuation.
©CFA Institute 2016
The article was first published on blogs.cfainstitute.org