The Idiot’s Guide to Finance

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Ever been curious what a mortgage-backed security is? What collateralized debt obligations are? Credit default swaps? The Big Short, Adam McKay’s funny docudrama about the leadup to the 2008 financial crisis, finds ways to explain this jargon. Sipping champagne in a bubble bath, Margot Robbie explains subprime mortgages. Anthony Bourdain makes stew with day-old fish to make sense of the way mortgages are repackaged and sold to investors. At a blackjack table Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler explain synthetic CDOs and credit default swaps: Gomez bets on her hand, then onlookers bet on whether Selena will win, and then onlookers of the onlookers bet on the outcome of the onlookers’ bet. And so on. “Got it? Good. Now fuck off,” says Margot Robbie. Yes, the tone of the movie can be arrogant. If only to drive home the populist message that bankers are greedy and regulators are venal. In this way The Big Short stumbles: It narrows the scope of the macroeconomic forces behind the housing bubble and suggests that foreknowledge of a bailout precipitated irresponsible lending. The movie shines the spotlight on four hedge funds that inspected the loans underlying the mortgage bonds, saw their weaknesses, and realized that, once the teaser rates switched off, people were going to start to default, and those defaults were going to bring down the house. So they bet against the housing market. The first to spot this is Dr. Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept numbers guy who goes to Goldman and other big banks to get credit default swaps. Ryan Gosling’s character, a Type A banker with an orange tan and dyed black hair, learns about this at a party. Thanks to a misdialed number, a fund headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) gets wind of the shorting. And a couple of two-bit players (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro) find Gosling’s character’s prospectus in the lobby of a bank and tell their paranoid ex-banker friend (Brad Pitt) about the opportunity. Some of this really happened, some of it is embellished. With a hip soundtrack, clever editing, and breaks of the fourth-wall, The Big Short supplies constant entertainment. And thanks to Steve Carell it feels like watching The Office on the big screen with great actors.

By Alec Julian & Carrie White 

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