Stories of America’s financial hub never fail to captivate audiences. The New York Stock Exchange is crammed into four rooms, and Wall Street itself is less than a mile long. However, this hive is the center of the world’s financial activity, resulting in an average of 5.7 billion shares traded each day, according to recent numbers published by the Wall Street Journal. Margin Call, Arbitrage, and the recent Wolf of Wall Street thoroughly examine the fast paced decisions, complexities, and even savagery of life in this iconic financial hub. Business leaders have to consider how they’ll react under immense pressure to keep their organizations afloat and customers happy. The protagonists in the following movies must face high-risk decisions and ethical issues on a constant basis. Decisions that can significantly impact their personal and professional lives. Here are 10 takeaway lessons we can gain from these films.
Lesson #1: Be Prepared to Face Significant Risks
The film Margin Call highlights some of the extremely sobering potential risks faced by traders working for Wall Street firms. In this sink or swim drama, the decision makers at the firm discover that they have to sell off extremely toxic securities, or their organization will sink. However, offloading these securities will only push the crisis onto their partners and clients, severing trusting relationships that the firm has been developing for years. It is a harrowing study of what traders will do when faced with situations of immense risk. Employees watch as their peers are laid off left and right, as the surviving firm representatives accumulate mass amounts of wealth, as the crisis affects everyone around them. Margin Call serves as a strong reminder that large gains are often made at the severe expense of others.
“I want you to hit every bit you can find. Dealers, brokers, clients, your mother, if she’s buying….The ground is shifting below our feet, and apparently, there’s no other way out.” – Sam Rogers, Margin Call
Lesson #2: Don’t Cook the Books
Arbitrage attracted critical attention and acclaim in 2012 with its list of stars, including Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Roth. Gere’s character, Robert Miller, is an unsavory magnate whose history of fraud remains unknown to his family. He’s altered his company’s financial data to keep his criminal acts concealed. Miller is involved in a car accident that results in a fatality, and tries to minimize his involvement. The ensuing investigation brings several questions to the surface for his family members, who catch onto the fraudulent activity. While Miller never has to legally answer for his crimes, his relationships with his family members have been irrevocably damaged. Arbitrage serves as a stark reminder that unethical business practices can come back to bite you. They can negatively impact your personal life and relationships as well.
“Nothing is beyond money for you, Robert. We both know that.” – Jimmy Grant, Arbitrage
Lesson #3: Don’t Let Success Get To Your Head
The Wolf of Wall Street is the epitome of a financial cautionary tale, demonstrating the new lows people can sink to when they amass their own fortunes quickly on Wall Street. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort can’t handle the quick success, and he spirals out of control with drug use, sex, insane purchases, and scams. This film teaches us that the fast accumulation of wealth doesn’t work out for everyone – in fact, it can lead people down paths of destruction. This adaptation is based on the real life experiences of Jordan Belfort, detailed in his 2007 memoir.
“On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan.” – Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street
Lesson #4: Those Who Rise the Highest Might Fall the Furthest
The 1993 TV movie, Barbarians at The Gate, tells the story of F. Ross Johnson, a prestigious CEO who has risen to wealth and fame after working as a paperboy. This rags to riches tale initially seems like the perfect capitalist success story. However, things become sour as Johnson strives to save a company from doom by purchasing it. The ensuing drama demonstrates that millions of dollars are at stake. Quite often, CEOs betting on Wall Street are putting their fortunes on the line.
“It’s not the company. It’s the credibility. My credibility. I can’t just sit on the bench and let other people play the game. Not my game. Not with their rules.” – Henry Kravis, Barbarians at the Gate
If you’re looking for a completely different type of film that emphasizes this point, check out Assault on Wall Street. This over-the-top Hollywood action shootout shows what one murderous and vengeful broker will do during an economic recession.
“They should all know that I am out there, a soldier of the people.” – Jim Baxford, Assault on Wall Street
Lesson #5: Don’t Let Brokers Gamble with Institutional Funds
Rogue Trader is a fictional adaptation of a real-life story, which illustrates one of the most catastrophic cautionary tales for banking institutions. Nick Leeson, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, gambles with illegal trades as a bank employee. His employers never think to monitor these trades, and the situation quickly derails.
“I, Nick Leeson, have lost 50 million quid in one day!” – Nick Leeson, Rogue Trader
Lesson #6: Stop Trying to Impress Others
Seth Davis (played by Giovanni Ribisi) is the hapless protagonist of Boiler Room, which also stars Vin Diesel. Seth drops out of college and seeks to regain the approval of his father, who is a really strict federal judge. To impress his dad, he begins to explore the world of stock brokerage. However, his quest to win over his father unwinds when Seth is confronted with extremely unethical business dilemmas.
“I have a very strong work ethic. The problem was my ethics in work.” – Seth Davis, Boiler Room
Lesson #7: The Press Will Dig Up Your Dirt
Investor Sherman McCoy, played by Tom Hanks, learned this the hard way in The Bonfire of the Vanities. He becomes the center of a media scandal as journalists and politicians warp a criminal investigation to suit their needs. McCoy’s life is completely picked apart by lawyers and journalists, who publicly reveal his infidelity, along with other dirty secrets.
“You see, Sherman, who started with so much, lost everything. But he gained his soul. Whereas I, you see, who started with so little, gained everything.” – Peter Fallow, The Bonfire of the Vanities
Lesson #8: It’s All a Big Gamble
Michael Moore’s eye-opening Capitalism: A Love Story documentary shows just how ill-informed Wall Street influencers are when it comes to where American funds are going. When Moore grills Elizabeth Warren about the location and status of federal bailout money, he was met with an “I don’t know” response. Moore spends the remainder of the film being met with red tape and closed doors as he tries to chase down answers on Wall Street.
“Don’t make any more movies.” – A Wall Street Businessman, Capitalism: A Love Story
Lesson #9: Put Your Eggs in More than One Basket
The HBO film, Too Big To Fail, illustrates the false confidence and extremely risky deals made by American financial institutions in 2008, which lead to the financial crisis and recession. Unfortunately, a pattern of mergers led to a very small group of institutions accountable for massive amounts of U.S. wealth. With few accountability measures in place, these banking giants were slid downhill along with the country’s funds.
“AIG can’t pay. AIG goes under. Every bank they insure books massive losses on the same day. And then they all go under. It all comes down.” – Neel Kashkari, Too Big to Fail
Lesson #10: The Stress Can Be Really Bad for Your Health
American Psycho is an extremely memorable film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel. Institutions aren’t just at risk of meltdowns – the human psyche can suffer a breakdown due to the immense stress of life on Wall Street. Christian Bale horrifies us with his portrayal of serial killer Patrick Bateman, who has become completely warped by the kill-or-be-killed mentality of the New York investment world.
“I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.” – Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
Institutions rise and fall because of the decisions made on Wall Street. This very crucial location is the setting for countless real life and fictional drama that unfold as quickly as stock prices fluctuate. It’s no surprise that there have been dozens of films capturing the culture and figure of influence on Wall Street. Check out a few of these cinematic gems and see what financial lessons you walk away with.
Featured photo credit: Hernan Seoane via flickr.com