Thursday, 5 March 2009

Wall Street, the Film

Although I did not know, Princess Margaret, Vickie Hodge, Messrs Aspinall, Goldsmith, Stirling, Lucan and co, the contrast between their real lives as we, outsiders, are able to learn from writings and from film, and that of Kevin Whately and his family, yesterday’s principal subject, could not be greater, but they are only always able to learn and make judgement on partial truths. What people say of themselves, including to the confessionals, especially what they tell us in print is usually what they want other to see, feel, and think of them, and this understandable and usually there is nothing wrong with this. Life would be impossible if we question everyone and everything all the time especially those who directly share our lives at work, in leisure activities and at home with our immediate and extended families.

There are differences between those who attempt to get on with their own lives, and those of their friends and families without attempting to dictate or control the lives of others, and those who have some power or influence over the lives of others. We can understand and accept when well intentioned and appropriate decisions, choices, actions, taken in specific circumstances do not work out as well as intended, or indeed fail, but what should be our reaction when it is evident that actions were taken purely for personal profit or advantage or to cover up misdeeds, and how do we separate social action against the criminal and the unscrupulous from action which also affects their families, their employees, and in some instances, as we have seen recently, the majority of us?

This was an issue recently when over the weekend the Leader of House Commons and the person who undertakes the role of Prime Minister answering Questions at Parliamentary Question Time when the Prime Minister is unable to do so, made the comment during an interview that whatever the position of the law in relation to someone who headed a failed bank, they should not draw a pension of several hundred thousand pounds a year for life, and if they persisted in retaining this money, previously agreed with the Government as the terms of their leaving, the government would take legislation to ensure the position did not continue. In making the statement she referred to the Court of Public Opinion. Public opinion however is however not the collective response of you and me but of the owners and editors of the news media, and they often have undisclosed agenda’s and take positions without all the available information upon which to make a judgement. However this does not mean that the media does not also reflecting what the public who contact then are actually thinking and feeling, although again this is not usually a fair representation of their readers, let alone the public in general.

That is why I argue that despite its imperfections and limitations, including the ability of governments and others with power to influence and at times to control, the Rule of Law is the more important safeguard of the interest of the state and its people, than the particular form of government and its Parliament, even when the process is democratic. This is why the British Parliament is primarily, overwhelmingly, formed of those who have trained as lawyers, and this includes the Leader of the House. However this is not to be critical of Ms Harriet Harman, because she was saying what 99% of the population are saying and hoped that it was something which the government would do, even if we did not expect that this would happen and knew there were good reasons why it should not.

By coincidence one of the films sent to me and viewed yesterday was Wall Street the 1987 Oliver Stone film which I have now seen three times since its release. In the special features section of the DVD, Oliver and Michael Douglas who plays the asset stripping take over shark Gordon Gekko, admit that they have been horrified to learn than many of yesterdays traders and Hedge fund managers used to admit that the film inspired them to be someone like the character in the film.

The key moment of the film, in this respect, is when Michael addresses a share holders meeting opposed to his take over bid. He makes an impassioned speech in praise of greed. Greed is good he declares, greed will benefit you as share holders because of the price I am willing to pay for your shares and will benefit me because of the profit I will then make. Moreover if you do not sell to me you will find others queuing to take you over, but the price will be less.

The film is the story of Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, who also played in the previous successful Oliver Stone movie Platoon, where I have the video. He is young Wall Street trader with drive and more ambition than is good for him. He one the traders allocated to cold call some of the big players. This reminds of when I worked for British Olivetti where I commenced work as a basic sales person calling on officers with one to five machines. Unfortunately my appointment coincided with the production of a new machine with a very soft touch which typists hated so although I obtained over fifty trials by chatting up secretary’s of office employees they did not recommend purchasing to their bosses and none were sold and the rest as they say is history when after visiting the 400 offices on my patch in the city over those first two months no one was interested over the next four and I ended spending most of my time travelling the circle line as autumn approached, or hanging around in pubs over half a pint or sitting in squares and other open spaces to pass the time. When I resigned everyone was upset because I had finished top of the sales school. Had I been successful I would have been moved into the medium office section of those possessing between 5 and 25 machines and then it the top floor team with those over 25 and where there were usually contracts to be bid for away from other suppliers. Even at my level of operation I did not have the heart for the tactics used albeit unsuccessfully given the poor functioning of the product, great design though. It was a bad machine and I was against trying to force it upon potential users who hated it, despite being able to recite the faults of the machines of our competitors. Oh I see you have a. Have you had the problem of? No. You have been lucky, for now etc.

In the film Bud has no such scruples. He has little contact with his father who has worked all his life in the maintenance of planes for a small independent airline which has suffered because of a crash and where the results are pending. Bud who has made daily phone calls trying to get an appointment with Mr Gekko calls on his birthday with a box of his favourite Havana cigars via his father, and manages to get five minutes of his time. Gekko is not impressed until Bud reveals that his father has disclosed that the investigation commission is to clear the airline of any responsibility for the accident and this will have a positive effect on the depressed shares. The success of this disclosure leads to Gekko wanting to find out how far Bud will go and sets him the task of spying on what an English rival is up to in New York, a man who has crossed swords and defeated Gekko in the past (Played by Terence Stamp. Bud is successful in finding out that his rival is interested in acquiring a steel making firm and this leads to Gekko setting about buying shares and using media connections to put up the price and which in turn forces the rival to make an even higher offer for the shares so he can complete his take over.

Having passed this test and been regarded with the favour of a former girl friend and interior designer of Gekko, Bud is signs up to a life of corrupting former friends and contacts for inside information which he then uses to buy and sells shares, in effect to himself using off shore accounts which are owned by Gekko although if things go wrong it is Bud not Gekko who has to take responsibility for the consequences of Insider Trading.

Bud is able to buy an expensive waterfront view apartment and begins to wear expensive suits and shoes which his girlfriend designs the interior, wears tailor made suits and shoes and eats at the finest restaurants. He invites his father, the union stewards and the company owners to a meting with Gekko and his lawyer who makes an offer to acquire the still struggle airline with a deal which will mean a temporary reduction in wages but the prospect of reinstatement and share owning options once the business is made profitable. Bud is to become the effective Managing Director. The firm is interested except for Bud‘s father played by his real life father Martin Sheen, and who played the president in, The West Wing, and is he second film seen in which father and son act together. As in the West Wing and several of his other roles Martin plays a man of integrity and in this film he is constantly reminding his son that a man should not be judged by what he is worth and he has nothing but distrust for Gekko and opposition to the trading and asset stripping ethic.

Bud then finds out that his father’s anxiety is more than justified when he learns of the intention to sell off planes, use available land for real estate development and raiding the pension fund once the employees have been made redundant. In his anger and guilt Bud then cooks up a scheme which he puts to Gekko’s rival in which also gains the cooperation of the firm’s owners and the trade union. The plan is to use his position to get colleagues to start buying the shares, forcing Gekko to pay an increasing higher price in his effort to gain control and then persuading his contacts to sell the shares at a profit, before launching a rumour which combined with the selling leads to market price taking a nose dive, thus enabling the rival to buy all the shares required for take over from the nominee holding controlled by Bud but at a price which with the cooperation of the existing management and workers will enable their company to survive and have a long term future. This causes Gekko to not only lose the take over bid but suffer a dramatic loss between the price paid and the price sold.

Thus Bud redeems himself after having a row with the girl friend who is not prepared to settle for anything other an ongoing money maker. He also puts the apartment on the market. This is timely because the financial watch dogs have become suspicious and arrests Bud who bursts into tears realising what is going to happen to him. There is a twist in which Bud confronts Gekko and Gekko makes an admission which is capture through a listening device in order to make the sentence for insider trading less. He has also surrendered all the remaining money he has made and gains the support and respect of his father and mother.

The film was made shortly before the great crash in the late 1980’s and that crash only helped to create the Hedge fund traders and encourage the devising of complex contracts based on volume deals with fine profits margins and potential for giant losses and to which governments and their supporting political parties headed by the USA and vied with each other to deregulate to enable vast personal fortunes to be accumulated on a scale not previously seen.

Only genuine international cooperation and national and international regulation is likely to re-establish confidence and morality in the banking system the various forms of speculation trading. I would be amazed if this was to happen.

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