Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Selected Frontline documentaries on financial crisis and compliance

Frontline is a documentary series that has been broadcast by PBS since 1983. The series covers a broad range of social, political, and historical topics. Among these documentary programs have been several episodes that have covered financial crises or compliance issues in the markets or at organizations. These topics range from the 2008 global financial crisis to an overview of corruption and unethical behaviour on Wall Street to fraudulent and misleading practices within specific companies that contributed to market instability and economic collapse.

  • To Catch A Trader and insider trading – This 2014 episode covers the history of SAC Capital Advisors, a group of hedge funds founded in 1992 by Steven A. Cohen which was very successful for many years but declined after numerous investigations by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading. Several former traders were indicted by the US Department of Justice and the firm itself pled guilty to insider trading charges, subsequently shrinking away after returning external investors’ money to them and divesting the rest of its capital. SAC Capital Advisors no longer exists as of 2016, but the divestment process is ongoing and continues to raise questions about conflicts of interest and ethical practices at the firm. As for Cohen himself, he runs what was once SAC Capital Advisors as a family office and remains active in the financial industry despite his failure to supervise at SAC.


  • Dot Con and financial markets fraud during the dotcom bubble – From 2002, this episode looks at the “dotcom bubble” of the late 1990s, when the financial markets were crazy for new internet companies and their IPOs were aggressively marketed to the investing public. At the time this was a totally new frontier and the growth of the bubble was fuelled by aggressive allocation practices in the IPO process. Did the eagerness to exploit this new market tip over into fraudulent or misleading handling of the IPOs? In the rush to take companies public, risks were certainly ignored or unknowingly assumed by investors. Transparency in the marketplace was really lacking, and no one wanted to miss on profits to slow down and question whether what was going on was appropriate or advisable. This is a formula which is bound to repeat over and over again in future financial market advances and collapses.


  • Inside the Meltdown and the causes of the 2008 global financial crisis – This 2009 documentary starts with the seeds of fear that were sown in late 2007 about the effect that the bursting housing bubble would have on Wall Street investment firms. Saddled with bad debt and hounded by rumors of instability, in 2008 financial organizations began to decline and collapse precipitously. First Bear Sterns, and then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, failed and needed rescue. Then finally in September 2008 came Lehman Brothers – and from the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who was subject to immense political pressure and criticism from the handling of prior crises, there came no bailout. In the aftermath of this, the financial crisis unfolded and ensued. Questions still remain about how this happened so quickly and severely, who caused or could have avoided it, and whether the plans to fix it and avoid it happening again have been effective.


  • Money, Power and Wall Street and the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis – In a sense picking up where the previous documentary left off, this 2013 episode looks at the often problematic efforts to recover from the financial crisis. In the many efforts to repair the global economy and strengthen the system to withstand future crises that are similar or more several, the financial markets and the governments that regulate and supervise them have struggled against themselves and each other. With investors and taxpayers all over the world on the hook for the risk and the bill, bold decisions as well as failures to act have characterized the rescue and rebuilding process, and continue to raise doubts about the resilience for the future.


  • The Warning and failure to regulate the derivatives market – This 2009 documentary looks at the financial crisis not from the perspective of the firms that weakened the market or collapsed within it, but from one segment, the derivatives market. This market is mysterious and key regulators took a hands-off position in investigating or managing it. The fears were that regulating the market could lead to financial crisis; it’s possible that not regulating it was one of the key causes of the downturn, in the end. These complex dynamics which prevented changes in the risky derivatives market still exist in governments and the markets today. Failing to change or move on from these to close the regulatory gap suggests that future crises are inevitable.


These are only just some Frontline episodes from over the years of the program that have touched on historically important events and issues relating to financial crisis and corporate compliance. These compelling documentaries provide a rich and informative, yet accessible, view into the complex and wide range of these topics.

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