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‘The Big Short’ dissects a financial meltdown

“The Big Short” (2015). Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brat Pitt, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Tracy Letts, Byron Mann, Rajeev Jacob, Jeffry Griffin, Karen Gillan, Billy Magnussen, Max Greenfield, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler. Director: Adam McKay. Screenplay: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay. Book: Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Web site. Trailer.

The Great Recession of 2008 is all too well known to a great many people. Much of the blame was placed on the collapse of the home mortgage market, and, at least superficially, that might be true. But what was behind that debacle, the underlying cause of an event that nearly brought the entire world’s economy to its knees? That’s what “The Big Short” seeks to explain.

In 2005, virtually everyone in the financial services industry was living high on the hog. Despite the losses that occurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the economy rebounded strongly in the time since that fateful day in 2001. Money rolled in as if it were on a perpetual upward spiral, a nonstop gravy train that most insiders thought would never end. People in the business partied like there was no tomorrow, celebrating the good fortune that was now being looked on as unending and matter of fact.

Many of those fortunes were made in the home mortgage market, a segment of the economy seen as rock solid dependable. But was it? As several astute financial analysts began to discover, the mortgage business looked like a disaster waiting to happen. The “bubble” that was forming in the housing market was getting ready to burst – and in a very big way. But, because most everyone in the business was so busy swilling champagne and spending money hand over fist, no one was paying attention to the fact that the mortgage market was built on risky investments that weren’t adequately investigated. These shaky housing loans were routinely bundled into investments known as “collateralized debt obligations” (or “CDOs”) and passed off as legitimate instruments when they were, in fact, seldom worth the paper they were printed on. In essence, the whole ball game was based on shoddy due diligence at best and rampant fraud at worst.

A handful of financial analysts saw the writing on the wall in 2005, and they projected a catastrophic collapse coming in 2007. Their thinking naturally ran contrary to the prevailing wisdom, and they were frequently laughed at by their peers. But they were undeterred in investigating matters further. Among those on this cutting-edge forefront was a colorful cast of characters:

* Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric, socially awkward, San Jose-based neurologist-turned-money manager with a penchant for heavy metal music and walking around barefoot. He astutely spotted the bubble when virtually no one else did and wanted to find a way to cash in on it. After all, if no one else was going to make money off of this impending disaster, at least he and his investors would. He proceeded to invent a financial instrument called a “credit default swap,” an investment that effectively bet against the viability of the risky loans, providing investors with a payout if they failed. The practice of purposely investing against the backers of the mortgages in hopes that the loans would default was known as “shorting.” At the time the swaps were created, buying into them was considered financial suicide. But, if Burry’s projections were to pan out, investors would be rewarded handsomely for their unconventional speculation.

* Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick, young, high-powered Wall Street banker who profited profusely from his efforts but who also had an underlying disdain for the conspicuous arrogance (and ignorance) of his colleagues. When he learned about Burry’s new investment vehicle, he looked into it and saw the financial opportunity of a lifetime emerging. He was determined to pounce on it, even if his clueless peers were oblivious to it, and sought investors to join him in this new venture.

* Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a high-strung hedge fund manager whose financial outlook was based on a wider view than just doing whatever it takes to make money. When approached by Vennett to join him in his bold undertaking, Baum was initially skeptical and decided to investigate further with the aid of his wise-cracking colleagues, Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater), Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong) and Danny Moses (Rafe Spall). They quickly validated what Jared said, a revelation whose implications troubled Mark deeply, for he saw consequences far worse than anyone ever imagined – including those who spotted the emerging bubble in the first place.

* Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a pair of upstart Colorado-based money managers aching to break into the Wall Street financial world. They, too, spotted the coming mortgage market collapse and wanted in on the shorting transactions. But, because their operation amounted to financial small potatoes, they needed help to get into the game in a big way. They turned to their friend, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired financier who now used his time and resources to promote socially conscious initiatives. Rickert possessed the clout to help Geller and Shipley – and the wits to take on a system that he had come to see as patently toxic.

Over time, the more these financial mavericks investigated the market, the more inherently corrupt they found it to be. When they discovered, for example, that some of the professionals charged with supposedly safeguarding the integrity of these investments (such as ratings agency analyst Georgia Hale (Melissa Leo) and CDO portfolio manager Mr. Chau (Byron Mann)) were blatantly disregarding their responsibilities, they were even more convinced that they were right. And, when they learned that no one in the media was willing to blow the whistle on the scam, they decided to jump in and await the arrival of their fortunes, for, if they were right about what was to transpire, the prospect of an untold fortune loomed large.

Betting on the mortgage market failing was seen as irresponsibly risky, something that most conventional financiers saw as a ludicrously improbable long shot—but one that would also yield an enormous payout if the projected result came to pass. Which it ultimately did.

The outcome of all this, of course, was the 2008 financial collapse. Even though it didn’t arrive exactly on cue, it arrived nevertheless, triggering a fiscal avalanche in short order (no pun intended). The fallout was felt far and wide; with the economy in meltdown, countless people lost their jobs and their homes. And, for what it’s worth, the prognosticators of financial doom made their money, their prescience in most cases tainted by decidedly mixed emotions. Sometimes being right doesn’t feel as good as one might assume it would.

Those who engage in the practice of conscious creation, the means by which we realize our reality through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, should take heed of this cautionary tale. The narrative of “The Big Short” provides an exemplary example of what can happen when we blatantly disregard the forces that drive our existence.

For instance, while most of Wall Street was preoccupied with making money and having a good time without paying attention to how that was happening, a time bomb was lurking beneath the surface of the industry’s collective consciousness. By focusing purely on the result and ignoring how it came to pass, the financial industry effectively turned a blind eye to its own looming fate, a practice commonly known as un-conscious creation. And, by the time its ranks recognized what was happening, it was too late to do anything about it – both for themselves and the hordes of those affected by their intrinsic metaphysical irresponsibility.

The conscious creation component most notably lacking in this scenario was a vitally crucial element – integrity. When we seek to employ the process, we nearly always get the best results when we’re in touch with our beliefs, particularly those that reflect our truest selves. But, when such integrity is absent or shunted off to the side, the results rarely meet our hoped-for expectations. The financiers who put their own interests ahead of their work and the welfare of those they served clearly lacked this attribute in their beliefs. So, considering how events ultimately played out, is it any surprise that this shortcoming would come back to bite them in a big way? (Payback, it would seem, really can live up to its decidedly surly reputation.)

As with any conscious creation undertaking, this film thus capably illustrates how we get back what we put into our ventures, especially when we disregard the importance of elements like integrity. This obviously applies to the financial operatives who wound up broke; they lost their shirts when they lost their heads. But the same could also be said for the many homeowners who lost their properties when they agreed to loan deals that were effectively too good to be true. Their desire to own homes at all costs, no matter what it took, reflected their own lack of integrity – and their own practice of un-conscious creation.

By ignoring the importance of integrity in the conscious creation process, we’re playing with metaphysical fire. And, as the film aptly shows, it’s easy to get burned when we seek to manifest our existence without its presence in our belief portfolio.

By contrast, those who are true to themselves, who purposely include integrity as part of their mix of intentions, manage to see their goals realized. Having this quality in place enables such conscious creation practitioners to make better use of other metaphysical tools at their disposal, like intuition and the ability to spot synchronicities. This was very much the case with Burry, Vennett, Baum, Rickert and their associates. They saw the emerging scenario and listened to their instincts, even if no one else was willing to give the idea a second thought. And, when opportunities appeared that enabled them to capitalize on their well-considered hunches, they availed themselves of what they had to offer.

Given that the financiers in this film profited off of the hardship of others, one might legitimately ask, “Where’s the integrity in that?” That argument certainly has some merit. However, as “integrity” is used here, the term has to do with being true to oneself and one’s beliefs in seeing through the materialization of one’s reality. And, in that context, their beliefs were borne out. Indeed, they succeeded in being able to say to the naysayers, “I told you so.”

As for the moral implications of this, that’s an entirely different matter. As becomes apparent in the film, each of the protagonists had their own reactions to what they did and how they felt about it. Vennett, for example, saw the opportunity as a chance to cash in big and didn’t hesitate to do so, unaffected – and mostly unapologetic – about the fallout of having made his investment. That’s what he wanted for himself – and promptly proceeded to create it, plain and simple.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rickert, Baum and, to an extent, Burry saw what was happening in the financial industry before the collapse and were troubled by the implications, and their decisions to proceed with their investments were tempered by other considerations. Rickert, for instance, used his now-considerably enhanced financial resources to bankroll socially responsible endeavors, undertakings that may not have come into being as readily were it not for the funds he amassed through his investment.

Similarly, Baum and Burry realized they needed to look out for the welfare of their investors, and, even though they may not have been entirely comfortable with their actions, they were at least able to make the decisions necessary to take care of those who placed their faith in them. Time for soul searching of the greater implications involved came later, a process that was by no means easy for either of them. But, despite such introspection, they could rest assured that they did what they needed to do for their clients.

And then there were Geller and Shipley, who initially believed much as Vennett did. But, when Rickert pointed out the ramifications of what their investment would likely yield, they came in for a rude awakening. The experience proved to be a useful lesson in turning away from un-conscious creation toward a more considered outlook about their beliefs – and what they can produce.

The collectively created mass event that was the financial collapse consisted of a wide array of individual stories and life lessons. The circumstances that provided the means for these assorted experiences may have been jointly manifested, but that overarching scenario made it possible for a diverse range of people to obtain what they needed to get out of it. Given the stakes involved, we can only hope that we learned our lesson from it. The potential for loss from sleepwalking through life or approaching it without integrity is substantial, consequences that are likely to be worse each time we fail to pass the test.

“The Big Short” is a surprisingly enjoyable movie about an unlikely subject that’s brought to life through a clever script, understated wit and masterful film editing. The picture skillfully provides novel analogies to explain complex financial concepts, employing celebrity lecturers like Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain. But, most of all, the film features a superb cast with stellar performances by Bale, Carell, Gosling and Leo. I can honestly say this is my favorite film of 2015, outclassing virtually all of the other offerings from what turned out to be a somewhat tepid year in cinema.

This offering is well deserving of all the accolades it has received. It previously earned four Golden Globe Award nominations (best comedy picture, screenplay, and comedy actor honors (for Bale and Carell)), though it took home no statues. It subsequently won three Critics Choice Awards for best comedy, adapted screenplay and comedy actor (Bale) on seven total nominations. In pending competitions, the film is awaiting word on its two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (best ensemble, supporting actor (Bale)), its four BAFTA nominations (best picture, editing, screenplay, supporting actor (Bale)) and its five Oscar nominations (best picture, director, adapted screenplay, editing, supporting actor (Bale)).

When we wonder why things turn out as they do, we need look no further than ourselves – and what drives us, namely, our beliefs. Sometimes we come up proud of ourselves, but, at other times, we might stumble upon some difficult realizations. This film illustrates that impeccably, showing us what can result when we grow lazy or unconcerned about the intents that create our existence. And that’s one instance where we certainly wouldn’t want to come up short.

Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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