Happy foxes and sad sacks…Fat cats and starving dogs..   Leave a comment

There are very few movies that linger in your head for a very long time and profoundly affect your thinking and I can sincerely say that Margin Call is one of those. Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor, the movie puts a face on those who manage, play and control money, etiquette’s of people who are very smart, selfish, indifferent, cold, speak obscure, expensive lies and no matter what the outcome they will go any distance to make sure they always get more of what they minimally want.

Margin Call is an independent film, inspired by a True bankrupt story of Lehman Brothers and focuses on the financial crisis of 2007–2008. The movie is an evolving story that is happening over a course of 34 hours and tracks the actions taken by a group of employees.

So what is Margin Call??

When the margin posted in the margin account is below the minimum margin requirement, the broker or exchange issues a margin call. A margin call forces the investor to either liquidate his/her position in the stock or add more cash to the account.

Eg: Imagine this: you’re sitting at the blackjack table and the dealer throws you an ace. You’d love to increase your bet, but you’re a little short on cash. Luckily, your friend offers to spot you $50 and says you can pay him back later. Tempting, isn’t it? If the cards are dealt right, you can win big and pay your buddy back his $50 with profits to spare. But what if you lose? Not only will you be down your original bet, but you’ll still owe your friend $50. The stakes are high and your potential for profit is dramatically increased. Conversely, your risk is also increased.

Margin is a high-risk strategy that can yield a huge profit if executed correctly. The dark side of margin is that you can lose your shirt and any other assets you’re wearing.

If for any reason you do not meet a margin call, the brokerage has the right to sell your securities to increase your account equity until you are above the maintenance margin. Even scarier is the fact that your broker may not be required to consult you before selling! Under most margin agreements, a firm can sell your securities without waiting for you to meet the margin call. You can’t even control which stock is sold to cover the margin call.

Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who heads risk management in a big shot US trading firm located in Brooklyn is offered a six-month severance at half of his salary. He has over 19 years of service to the firm and he is callously kicked out. His other colleagues Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) express deep concern. While he announces that he is working on very sensitive stats data, nobody listens to him. Yet, he presents the data to his younger colleague Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and asks him to take a look at it.

Meanwhile, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the floor boss is very upset because his dog is about to die of tumor on her liver! And he is spending $1,000 a day just trying to keep her alive!! He delivers the usual managerial speech on layoffs and conveys to his peers that they are very special, so they are kept hold of ;)

Working late hours, Peter decodes Dale’s work and is very much astonished at its consequences. The model predicts losses which are greater than the current value of the firm. He immediately calls Seth and Will back to office. They fail to reach out for Dale, Will orders Peter and Seth to go and get Dale and at the same time, Will feeds the sensitive information to his boss Sam, who immediately, arrives at the office.

In view with the Dale’s shocking exit, Seth proudly and confidently announces to Peter that he does not let work get him like that and also tells him that he made quarter of a million dollars last year just by pushing numbers around on a computer screen. :)

Being Top executive, Sam does not comprehend the prediction of the numbers but he is able to recognize the implications of it. So he orders Will to call back Peter and Seth who are in pursuit of dale and to have a second opinion on the forecast, he calls in for an immediate meeting with the top brass.

In the meeting, Sam introduces chief risk officer Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi). Head of risk assessment Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and in-house counsel Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). Stunned by the reports, Sarah questions Peter on his CV to which Cohen amuses for the fact that Peter is a rocket scientist graduated from MIT. Peter sincerely replies “It’s all just numbers, Just changing what you’re adding up.” and he likes the firm because the money that they disburse is considerably more attractive.

Cohen casually asks a question to Sam on the time frame, as in how long would it take to clear the toxic assets from their books. Sam gets annoyed and replies back that their business is selling and buying and It doesn’t work for very long without both components. Sarah pitches in and coveys that they would have to go block by block to asses and analyze the prices and to completely let go from their contaminated holdings, it would take months.

Time’s ticking its already 2am and they have to come to a conclusion, Therefore, Cohen invites the company CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to make final decision and reschedules the meeting. Seth, Peter mull over that the firm cannot dump everything. They find it impossible but Will serenely points out that he’s been in the company for 10 years and he’s seen things that they wouldn’t believe. When all is said and done, the firm will not lose any money and they don’t mind if everybody else does.

Enter Jeremy Irons; this is the best part of the movie where in Tuld pretends to acts like a dumb CEO delivers fantastic array of sentences that simply hither and thither the audience. Tuld asks Peter to explain to him in plain English “speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever.”  :) and undermines himself by saying “It wasn’t brains that got me here. I can assure you of that.”  Peter successfully elucidates that the firm has pushed the leverage considerably beyond the limits, thereby pushing the risk profile without raising any red flags and if those assets decrease by just 25% the loss would be greater than the current market capitalization of the entire company and smartly puts it as “What this model shows is the music, so to speak, just slowing…” :)

Tuld reacts to this statement even more stylishly by asking him “Do you care to know why I’m in this chair with you all? I mean, why I earn the big bucks?” and answers “I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more.” And right now he only hears silence, there’s no music to it at all! Tuld invokes the response from the miserable audience and expresses his wish to dispose  the toxic wastes. In order to survive Tuld proposes to sell it all to the willing buyers of the current fair market price. Sam is infuriated with the decision and engages in a feisty conversion with Tuld. He expresses concern that their firm will be selling something that everyone knows that it has no value and it will kill the market for years to come; that they are knowingly putting people out of business and no one will ever trust them again. Nevertheless, Tuld sticks to his decision.

Cohen and Sarah discuss on the end-strategies and their current positions. Will, Peter and Seth discuss on how much Tuld made last year! At the same time, Dale’s wife informs Will that her husband is back home. So, Will and Seth go out to bring Dale back to office. Tuld meets Sarah and openly communicates that he needs a head to feed to the traders on the floor and the board. So he is picking her as the lamb , to which she corresponds that he is well aware that she did filter several warnings to him and to Cohen about the same a year ago! Tuld coolly replies “We all fucked this one up pretty good.” but sticks to his decision.

Will finally meets Dale and coveys him about the firm’s wishes and requests him to come back to office to which he blatantly refuses. Dale talks about a bridge that he build two decades ago, does lot of math and concludes that one little bridge had saved the people a combined 1,531 years of their lives not wasted in driving a car and he’s proud about it.

Will reminds Dale that if he does not come back to office the firm will fight him on his package, his options, everything. Meanwhile, Tuld meets Sam and offers him a little gift to convince him on dumping the assets.

Seth raises concern about inevitability on getting the Pink slips, Will explains to him about the nature of their work with this extraordinary monologue
“Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin’ houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have know idea where it came from. Well, thats more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck em. Fuck normal people. You know, the funny thing is, tomorrow if all of this goes tits up they’re gonna crucify us for being too reckless but if we’re wrong, and everything gets back on track? Well then, the same people are gonna laugh till they piss their pants cause we’re gonna all look like the biggest pussies God ever let through the door.”

Peter and Sam contemplate on what is right, what is wrong, and both are utterly confused, they have never done anything like this before, not even close.  Seth who had earlier proclaimed that he does not let work get him like that, panics royally, confronts Cohen and expresses his disappointment, Cohen coldly dismisses him by saying; this was all he ever wanted to do. :P

Dale finally realizes that he will suffer looses, so he is back at office due to the underlying threat the firm will pose if he did not co-operate. He meets Sarah and both discuss on how much each of them are going to benefit from this. :D

Sam meets his team and announces that the firm has decided to liquidate its majority position of fixed income MBS (Mortgage-backed security). So if anyone achieves a 93% sale of firm’s assets, they will be awarded with 6 digit bonus!  He also adds “I want you to hit every bite you can find dealers, brokers, clients. Your mother, if she’s buying.” :D They start off with 94$ and finish at 65 cents!! :P

After such epic day, Cohen congratulates Sam and explains that HR dept will be immediately rolling out the pink slips!! Outraged by the events, Sam meets Tuld in the firm’s exclusive dining hall and straightforwardly tells him that he wants to go out. Tuld ironically says that Sam is very lucky not to be digging ditches all these years :) Also provides him with this striking piece of reality
“So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You’ve been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987-Jesus, didn’t that fuck up me up good-92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”

After listening to Tuld’s speech, Sam reluctantly agrees to stay on. Cohen invites Peter to the dining area and Tuld explains Sam that Peter is promoted and he needs smart people to stay and reconstruct the fallen empire. The last scene: Sam is digging a grave to bury his ceased dog,  allegorically implying that “there’d be some holes in the ground to show for it” :)

Even though if you are not inclined or familiar with the financial intricacies of Economics, The film keeps you completely engaged. The audience is aware of the generic conclusion but the way it is transported or explored makes it really interesting. It accurately depicts hierarchical structure of the firm and there is equality in the screen presence of its associated characters, their lives, their emotions and their insecurities.

The script is well written, Chandor took almost 15 years to work on the same and with this cast of amazing talent, exemplifies a pragmatic view on how capitalism work. The movie also reminded me of my selfish, manipulative managers, HR’s who doesn’t know crap of how things work, who are quick to blame others, talk only in percentages; numbers and they are only looking out for themselves.

It made me to delve on the question: of what is right and what is wrong. Aesthetically speaking, the depicted characters are within the rules of the game. However, they are driven by pure insatiable greed. Their primary aim is to make big money in a very small amount of time, instruct their greedy neurons to bend rules and maximize profits. Is this what being smart is all about?? Is this what education do??? To fill our souls with  “little more”, “just a little more”, “justttttt…….. a littleee more”. There’s no end to it…. And the loop continues……..

References:

http://www.movieline.com/2011/10/17/director-jc-chandor-on-his-15-year-journey-to-make-margin-call/?page=all
http://www.solopassion.com/node/8756
http://www.investopedia.com/university/margin/margin2.asp
http://thefineartdiner.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/deconstructing-volatile-risk-margin.html

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