Based on the book by Michael Lewis, THE BIG SHORT (2015) brings together solid direction, a stellar cast, and a powerful script to tell the story of the 2008 housing crisis that nearly crashed the world economy. The story focuses on several investors–a socially awkward doctor who reads numbers so well he can predict market trends, a rogue investor group led by a misanthrope, and two brilliant young investors looking for a big trade that will get them a seat at the big boys’ table–as they predict the crash and seek to cash in on it.
This is a complicated topic made simple through good storytelling. Basically, mortgages were aggregated as new investment products with high rates of return. As time went on, higher-risk loans were packaged with them, then very risky loans. Over time, few knew what was even in these products, which kept getting AAA credit ratings by agencies under financial pressure to do so. Then spinoff products began to arise around these products, resulting in say $10 billion becoming $100 billion, without anything justifying it other than the illusion there was value there. The SEC did nothing about it because they were underfunded, and the people who worked there wanted lucrative jobs when they got out of government. When higher-rate clauses in a wave of adjustable rate mortgages began to kick in in 2007, massive defaults cracked the system, which led to its unwinding and crash while revealing just how rotten and corrupt the entire market was.
The investors who saw this coming were modern-day Cassandras. As nobody has ever shorted the housing market, the banks create products just for them, thinking they’re crazy and that they’re making easy money. As everybody had a vested interest in keeping the illusion of stability going, the market kept rising and the AAA ratings held, even as the default rate kept rising. Finally, the system broke, big banks and investment firms were going down or in trouble, and millions of people lost everything. Not the banks, though, which got their bailouts, paid out huge bonuses to their executives, and years later went right back to the same highly risky investment products that got us into that mess.
THE BIG SHORT is a terrific movie that respects the intelligence of its audience, is cynical rather than preachy, and functions as a dark comedy about how the global economy nearly imploded out of sheer greed and willful ignorance. One thing is certain: If somebody can make a buck making a mistake and pass off its consequences to the public, they will do it again and again, and even romanticize the mistake as being brilliant and brave.