“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.” – Audrey Hepburn
A while ago I went on a financial-film binge – I watched pretty much anything I could find on the subject, which was weird. I was never liked to watch films about my own industry – it felt like an extension of work. I never understood my doctor friends’ fascination about House, for example.
But after watching one, I was hooked. Yes, financial movies weren’t necessarily always spot-on with their technical details, but that’s besides the point. It didn’t feel like an extension of work. Conversely, watching films dramatize my day-to-day gave me a thrill, and made mundane bits about my job… cool. Which, I accept, is probably as close to feeling like Indiana Jones as I am going to get.
We have a reading list for CFA Program candidates (two, actually), so I thought, why not compile a list of must-watch films for candidates as well? Here are the top films that will not only entertain, but put into practice what you’re learning from the CFA program.
1) The Big Short
“For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”
Michael Burry, an eccentric ex-physician turned one-eyed Scion Capital hedge fund manager, has traded traditional office attire for shorts, bare feet and a Supercuts haircut. He believes that the US housing market is built on a bubble that will burst within the next few years. Burry proceeds to bet against the housing market with the banks, who are more than happy to accept his proposal for something that has never happened in American history.
Jared Vennett with Deutschebank gets wind of what Burry is doing and, as an investor believes he too can cash in on Burry’s beliefs. An errant telephone call to FrontPoint Partners gets this information into the hands of Mark Baum, an idealist who is fed up with the corruption in the financial industry. Baum and his associates, who work at an arms length under Morgan Stanley, decide to join forces with Vennett despite not totally trusting him.
Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, who are minor players in a $30 million start-up garage company called Brownfield, get a hold of Vennett’s prospectus on the matter. Wanting in on the action but not having the official clout to play, they decide to call an old “friend”, retired investment banker Ben Rickert, to help out.
Oscar-winning The Big Short is an entertaining film in itself, but where it gets extra brownie points with us is its stylistic method of explaining often dry and technical details of financial instruments featured in the film, such as explaining the origination and complexity of a synthetic CDO in a scene where Selena Gomez plays blackjack. Another example using Jenga blocks and Anthony Bourdain is featured in the clip below.
Wouldn’t it be nice if CFA Program material were explained like this?
2) Inside Job
“Chuck Prince of Citibank famously said that ‘we have to dance until the music stops.’ Actually, the music had stopped already when he said that.” – George Soros
Filmed on-location in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China, ‘Inside Job’ is a documentary based on research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics, the film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia, sharing the point of view from then-politician Christine Lagarde to world known investor Georges Soros. It follows a well-structured approach consisting of five parts and looks in depth topics such as the regulation of financial markets and the housing bubble market.
The film has gathered praise for its research and argument against the accountability of the US financial system.
3) Too Big To Fail
“Credit has the ability to build a modern economy, but lack of credit has the ability to destroy it, swiftly and absolutely.”
The movie focuses on how the US Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson attempted to rescue Lehman Brothers and AIG from the bankruptcy. You probably know how the rest of the events unfold, but I particularly enjoyed Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Ben Bernanke – no wonder he won a Screen Actors Guild Award for that!
4) Wall Street
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
This film is about insider trading – using it to make tons of money as fast as possible. It isn’t the first film about it but it is unparalleled in its quality, intensity and entertainment value. You won’t find many top lists of finance movies without Wall Street being included – and the infamy of its villain, Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) is legendary.
Some of the iconic lines from the film have since been quoted and re-quoted to the point that some people don’t realise it’s from this film: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
5) Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
[CEO and Chairman of Enron, Kenneth Lay’s Q&A session with employees]
All right, we are down to questions. And I got a few up here.
[reads question from the floor]
‘I would like to know if you are on crack, if so that would explain a lot. If not, you may want to start because it’s going to be a long time before we trust you again.’
From inflating profits, dubious accounting practices and energy market manipulation – you have it all here in this documentary of corporate greed.
6) Becoming Warren Buffett
“If you’re emotional about investment, you’re not going to do well. You may have all these feelings about a stock, the stock has no feelings about you.” – Warren Buffett
This inspiring documentary follows the evolution of a numbers-obsessed Nebraska kid to one of the most respected and successful investor in the world, all the while introducing you to the people that most aided his growth. It’s not focused on investing per se, but there are lots of words of wisdom dotted throughout that will provide serious food-for-thought afterwards.
A side note: for those of you with extra time this holidays, all the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters are always an interesting and educational read for an insight to his investing style and personality.
7) American Psycho
“I have to return some video tapes.”
Christian Bale plays the role of Patrick Bateman, a young successful investment banker in the heart of Manhattan. He goes on about his day eating in expensive restaurants, hanging out with his rich friends and … leading a life as a serial killer.
The film while is a little over the top is also satirical to what investment banking is like: the quest of dominance, perfection and appearance. The famous business card scene perfectly highlights the superficialities of business culture, but at the same time demonstrates how profound banalities can affect us, if we let them. The film is a cult classic and is Christian Bale’s breakout film.
The film focuses on Bateman’s psychopathic tendencies, but this might be closer to more fact than fiction. Published in the Financial Times (“The Psychopath’s guide to finance” David Oakley) a Professor from Oxford has conducted research on readers of the FT versus readers of other newspapers. He argued that ‘the profession with the most psychopaths was financial services’ and furthermore states that ‘psychopathic traits make great chief executives’.
8) Trading Places
“Sell 30 April at 142!”
When Winthorpe bumps into Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a street hustler and assumes he is trying to rob him, he has him arrested. Upon seeing how different the two men are, the brothers decide to make a wager as to what would happen if Winthorpe loses his job, his home and is shunned by everyone he knows and if Valentine was given Winthorpe’s job.
The film culminates in a fast-paced futures trading showdown that is a great example of commodities trading (the trades that take place in the Trading Places finale are broken down step by step here).
One interesting kicker to the story: Trading commodities on inside information obtained from the government wasn’t actually illegal when the movie came out, but it’s illegal now. It was banned in the 2010 finance-overhaul law, under a special provision often referred to as the Eddie Murphy Rule.
9) Boiler Room
“You will make your first million in three years.”
That’s the promise that Jack Young (Ben Affleck) makes to his young recruits at a suburban investment firm. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck, this film showcases the ‘pump and dump’ more than ten years before the Wolf of Wall Street. Pump and dump is a type of securities fraud that involves selling worthless stocks at artificially inflated prices to unsuspecting victims, usually by aggressive sales tactics, combined with misleading or outright false information.
Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth, a college dropout that joins Jack Young’s firm with a drive to make his father proud, and initially does well at his firm. As he begins to excel and develop a love for the hard sale and high commission, learning more about the firm he works at lead Seth to question the legitimacy of the firm’s operations – placing him once again at odds with his father and what remains of his morality.
10) Margin Call
“We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that we may survive.”
One of the most technically accurate films in this list, this film is a realistic view on what transpired during the beginning of the crisis of 2008. Zachary Quinto plays the role of Peter Sullivan, a rocket scientist working as a risk analyst in a leading investment bank in New York. As most of the firm is being laid off, Peter’s boss is among them. Before he is escorted out of the office and hands Peter a USB drive showing worrying signs of what’s to come – and the decisions, actions and ethics that have to be considered in the next 24 hours.
11) The Company Men
“I … will … win. Why? Because I have faith … courage … and enthusiasm.”
The film follows the downsizing of GTX, a ship-building firm, and the lives of the three employees after being laid off. One of the first to go is sales manager Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) who is shocked and then hurt and then overcome with a feeling of failure and humiliation. Bobby’s wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) at first responds with desperation but adjusts by taking on work as an ER nurse, coaxing their son to not lose hope in Bobby. Bobby tries to find work but is the victim of the joblessness of the country: he finally accepts Maggie’s brother Jack’s (Kevin Costner) offer to work as a simple carpenter.
Meanwhile the downsizing includes Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the founders of the firm, and longterm employee Phil (Chris Cooper) who is overcome with anger and humiliation at being unemployable because of his advanced age. The manner in which each of these three men cope with the loss of job and income weaves a story that is complete with tragedy as well as a demonstration of the indomitability of the human spirit.
12) Bitcoin: The End of Money as We Know It
“Innovation without permission has now arrived in the financial sector.”
This concise, clear and jargon-free documentary is targeted for mainstream audience. It starts by looks at the broader picture by examining the history of money, the patterns of technological changes and how it led to birth of cryptocurrencies.
The director Torsten Hoffmann also recently just launched another related documentary this year entitled: “Cryptopia: Bitcoin, Blockchains and the Future of the Internet“, focusing on blockchain. If you like his style, do check it out in the links further below!
Special Mentions: Other Finance Movies and Documentaries
- The Accountant | 2016 | 2h 8min | Action, Crime, Drama | Financial Reporting & Analysis | Trailer
- The China Hustle | 2017 | 1h 22min | Documentary | Systematic Securities Fraud | Trailer
- Rogue Trader | 1999 | 1h 41min | Crime, Drama, History | Derivatives Fraud | Trailer
- Family Man | 2016 | 1h 48min | Drama | Recruiting, Work & Life Balance | Trailer
- The Wolf of Wall Street | 2013 | 3h | Biography, Crime, Drama | Pump & Dump Fraud | Trailer
- The Pursuit of Happyness | 2006 | 1h 57min | Biography, Drama | Job Hunt, Stockbroking | Trailer
- Arbitrage | 2012 | 1h 47min | Drama, Thriller | Hedge Funds, Fraud | Trailer
- Glengarry Glen Ross | 1992 | 1h 40min | Crime, Drama, Mystery | Sales | Trailer
- Barbarians at the Gate | 1993 | 1h 47min | Biography, Comedy, Drama | LBO | Trailer
- Betting on Zero | 2016 | 98min | Documentary, Crime | Pyramid Scheme | Trailer
- Cryptopia: Bitcoin, Blockchains and the Future of the Internet | 2020 | 86min | Documentary, Crime | Blockchain | Trailer