My thoughts on The Big Short

I finally saw the Oscar-nominated movie about the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short. And I love it.

The movie is based on the book on the financial crisis written by Michael Lewis. It explains the subprime mortgage crisis in a way many people can understand. It shows the carelessness of the banks, the failure of regulators and the greed which kept the machine running.

There is a brilliant performance by Christian Bale, who plays Michael Burry, MD, the medical doctor turned hedge fund manager who first discovered that many of the underlying mortgages that the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) were built on were of a poorer quality than the rating agencies were claiming. Burry shorted (bet against) the housing market through credit default swaps he made the banks create for him. There are great performances too by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.

The movie takes an antagonistic view of the banks, other financial institutions, rating agencies and regulators. They are portrayed either as ridiculously naive or exceedingly greedy. Near the end of the movie it is suggested that they were not naive after all but that they knew their reckless gambling was backstopped by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

It does not mention Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises who also took heavy losses due to their exposure to mortgages and had to bailed out.

Other omissions are the fact that bailing out the banks was to prevent a collapse of the whole financial system which would have had an even worse effect than the Great Recession that the financial crisis caused. Banks have since paid $110 billion in fines for their recklessness and the taxpayer has made $69 billion in profit from the bailout.

The biggest failure of the movie for me was that subprime mortgates were described as shit. I think this failed to explain to the average person what really these are. Sure, they are a poor investment, but they represent loans made to people who no one else would lend to. People who also wanted to take part in the American dream. Surely there should be some facility for them. Also missing from the villainy of the financial institutions is the racial discrimination in sub-prime lending. High-income black and latino families who could afford a prime loan were given riskier sub-prime loans.

Despite my criticism, I think director Adam Mckay was trying to tell a story which the average person could understand. And sometimes some omission is necessary to let people see the bigger picture. I think Adam was trying to show that greed nearly brought down capitalism. And in that, I think he was successful.

Go see it.


Jerome Kuseh

Accountant | Economist-in-Training | Finance Blogger

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