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In the aftermath of the financial meltdown of the late 2000s a spate of movies were released that dealt with the world of finance and the inner workings of Wall Street. Documentary-style films such as ‘Too Big to Fail or Inside Job as well as dramatic features such as The Wolf of Wall Street or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (see Ethics on Screen 1 and 6) have all attempted to explain the crisis or at least expose the world of finance as ruthless, instrumental, and the last place on earth to look for ethics. Margin Call is something of an exception. For starters, with a prime cast (starring among others Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci) and a sharp script that was nominated for best original screenplay at the 2012 Oscars, it is highly engaging to watch—whether you are looking to gain some insights into the mechanics of the financial crisis or not. But it also stays largely clear of stereotyping or even judging the individual actors in the story—even though the moral mazes in modern finance are expertly brought to screen. The film plays out in the final days preceding the 2008 financial collapse. It starts with a scene where whole swathes of the workforce of a Wall Street investment bank are ruthlessly fired. The main plot, however, revolves around the late-night discovery by a junior analyst that the bank’s ‘toxic assets’ (i.e. those mortgage-based securities whose demise caused the crisis to unfold) are putting the entire existence of the company at risk—unless the firm finds a way to get rid of them as soon as possible. A central scene unfolds in a 2am meeting convened by the CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons)—Tuld being a thinly disguised reference to the infamous Lehman Brothers CEO, Dick Fuld. He summons his senior staff and demands to know what they should do with this ‘greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism’ (like The Wolf of Wall Street, the film captures well the brutal jargon of the industry). The chief trader Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) makes an eloquent argument that selling worthless assets to their as yet unsuspecting clients would fundamentally threaten the market, and could ultimately put the company out of business. After all, those clients would soon enough discover that they had been sold ‘junk bonds’—an argument which could not better demonstrate an ethics of ‘enlightened egoism’ that dominates much of the workings of business. Tuld, however, sticks to a much narrower, less ‘enlightened’ ethical viewpoint. All that matters is the immediate survival of the firm, regardless of who gets hurt along the way. Raw corporate self-interest thus drives the firm to rapidly offload its toxic assets before the market can even fully realize what is happening. Still, Tuld presents this not as dishonest (‘I don’t cheat’ he clearly states to his team), but as simply ‘being first’ among their competitors in anticipating the market and ‘selling to willing buyers at the current fair, market price’. Of course, unlike their own traders, the firm’s clients do not know how worthless the securities are when they buy them from the firm, meaning that the ‘market price’ is anything but fair. It is a reflection of incomplete information rather than the price that a truly informed buyer would pay. Sam ultimately goes ahead with the rapid disposal of the toxic assets despite his misgivings and is even convinced by Tuld not to quit afterwards because, as he admits, he ‘needs the money’. Tuld, however, continues to see things differently. ‘It’s just money,’ he says over dinner on the top floor of the building overlooking Manhattan. ‘It’s made up. It’s not wrong, and it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been.’ His point is that in financial markets, self-interest is the only game in town, and in fact it is this self-interest that has driven the success of Wall Street, and made New York one of the richest places on earth. Stock market crashes are just one of the costs along the way. It is a common variant of the ‘egoist means for utilitarian ends’ argument, even if it does require him to conveniently ignore the evidence that he has just destroyed more value than he has created. Watching the movie as a business ethics student suggests a number of important lessons. Chief among them is that egoist thinking is powerful in business, but not always in its genuine ‘ethical’ form (where everyone gets to freely and fairly participate in the market), or still less in its more enlightened form (where concern for others is seen as part of the firm’s long-term self-interest). It is a powerful worldview that even those, like Sam, who are given to different ethical viewpoints, find hard to resist.

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