Monday, September 27

Wall Street - The Movie

Oliver Stone's remake of his film "Wall Street" does not really interest me. The '87 film, however, caught the rumblings of a country shifting from manufacturing and export to services .. and easy, so it seemed, money (Ivan Boesky: "Greed is good"). For many youngsters, myself included, it was an irresistible shout out. Recall "Wall Street" hit the theatres a month following a Wall Street collapse and the film not critically received nor particularly popular. I watched Wall Street in '89, in my parent's den, returning to Providence for my final semester of college and job interviews with all the "bulge bracket" firms.

Stone meant Wall Street to be a cautionary tale with Gordon Gekko serving as the modern-day villain: his flashy clothes hide his lack of class and, cathartically, he receives his comeuppance by the film's blue collar Joes who bring Gekko down while fleecing his money. Unlike Gekko, Gekko's protege, Bud Fox (pictured), spoke to many of my generation. We were blind to the perils of cheap (or compromised) success yet Gekko and Fox do jail time. For that matter, many of us wanted to be in harm's way - in the middle of something important - glamorous - that effected industry, jobs and people. We wished for the chance to make the decision, often in the grey areas, of right and wrong. What responsibility! Fox's flash apartment and model girlfriend a stupid red herring; the real message of Bud Fox was that you could be Bud Fox. And straight from college. "Wall Street" may not have been a box-office success but in '89, 75% of Yale's graduating class applied for investment banking jobs (First Boston, where I went, received 55,000 applications for 60 financial analyst spots). I thought to myself: this is the most competitive thing I can pursue; this is the most prestigious place I can go with my education.

I have talked to a number of friends about "Wall Street" and one, who has been at Credit Suisse since '85 and has run various units from asset management to Asian m&a, recalls the film as baseless ("I saw it as completely unrealistic drivel"). We have also discussed the evils of the industry and neither of us can recall working with a Gekko-like colleague or, for that matter, anyone who broke the rules or was corrupted by money somehow. Sure, there were guys I despised, but they, too, were hard working and smart and held their clients to the very highest of esteem.

Wall Street hanged itself when A) commercial banks allowed to offer investment banking services in '90; B) private partnerships went public with Salomon Brothers leading the way in '85; C) the shift of power from the client advisory business to the bond desk and prop trading where a firm trades its "own" money. The latter especially was Gekko territory. By the 1980s the lowly bond trader now King (while everybody made a killing). When the long-term banker relationships marginalised, the race was on for the collapse. Nor have we learned, it would seem, given the Financial Reform Acts' Republican neutering, but we shall see - of this we can be sure.

"The main thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."
Lou Mannheim to Bud Fox in "Wall Street"