WASHINGTON – A new hit movie about the housing market collapse and 2008 financial crash explained complicated economic issues through humor, but The Big Short may have portrayed bankers as more aware of the impending disaster than they were, some financial experts say.
Following a screening of the movie at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday evening, market experts, journalists and director Adam McKay discussed the film’s portrayal of the 2008 crash. Focusing on the complicated nature of the events involved and where to place blame, panelists gave positive reviews of the film’s explanation with little disagreement.
The experts gave thumbs-up for its easy-to-understand and entertaining breakdown of complicated financial instruments.
“Watching the movie, you didn’t have to know what a CDO was to understand the tone,” said Danny Moses, who was part of the team at FrontPoint Partners that shorted housing and was portrayed in the film by Rafe Spall. Moses said that the explanations included in the film allowed audiences to take in its message without feeling pressured to look up key concepts.
Greg Ip, chief economics commentator for the Wall Street Journal, emphasized this accomplishment, noting the many different forces at work leading up to the crash.
“Even for those of us who cover this for a living, this stuff is hard,” Ip said.
However, he said that the film failed to capture macroeconomic causes behind the collapse, like falling interest rates and global market trends.
McKay acknowledged that some material had to be left out. While the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s official report on the crash was 576 pages long and Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short was 320, the film of the same name only had about two hours to distill a complicated, worldwide system failure into a compelling narrative.
The biggest point of disagreement for the group was the movie’s presentation of bankers as fully aware of the risks they were taking. Donald Kohn, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said that after 20 years of rising housing prices, no one expected such a concentrated failure.
“There was a huge amount of complacency in the system,” Kohn said.
Moses, however, said that many knew there was a risk of a crisis before it happened, but that warnings weren’t widely circulated.
“Nobody wanted to hear that the housing market was going to crash,” he said.
Now, it seems, people are more willing to pay attention. Since its release, The Big Short has made over $56 million at the box office and has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture. David Wessel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, said this success was important for spreading knowledge about the financial crisis, noting the power of movies in preserving history.
“There are many kids in America who, all they’ll ever know of Martin Luther King is [the movie] Selma,” he said.
McKay said there is still room for improvement in the financial sector. Answering a question about whether the movie’s ending overlooked regulations that had been put in place to break up banks and protect the market, he said that he thought his take was “pitch-perfect” and that what has been done isn’t enough.
“The banks have continued to grow,” McKay said. “They’re still too big to fail.”