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

Margin Call and unethical crisis management in the financial services industry

The 2011 movie Margin Call focuses on the conduct of the employees of an investment bank in disaster mode. The movie takes place in the prelude to the 2008 global financial crisis. During a reduction in workforce, an analyst reveals that the firm’s predictive models are showing that its portfolio of mortgage-backed securities will soon experience losses which will exceed the highly-leveraged value of the firm and lead to its bankruptcy.

The rest of the movie centers on the behavior of the firm’s employees and senior management and the choices they make in handling this discovery. Unsurprisingly, many of them model unethical decision-making and provide cautionary examples from which governance and compliance structures can take advice for what to prevent.

  • Key man dependency and lack of transparency – The entire movie revolves around the too-late discovery of the projected losses by an analyst. His boss was working on a project to try to figure out what was wrong with the firm’s models, but he was laid off before he finished his analysis. This scenario suggests the conclusion that if the boss had not been working alone or had been sharing his work in progress sufficiently, then the problems could have been discovered earlier and the entire dilemma could have been avoided or at least mitigated. An insecure overdependence on the work of one vulnerable man and a lack of honest disclosure led to this firm’s undoing from the very start.

  • Corporate code of ethics and culture drivers – A firm’s compliance program sets a tone and provides a rules-based structure for employees. Ultimately each individual still has the freedom to make unethical or inappropriate decision for his or herself, but the choice architecture provided by a firm’s governance controls matters for setting expectations. Corporate enablement of immoral or ethical behavior starts at its simplest practices, such as reimbursement of expenses, especially in a business where the financial upside for compensation is immense. In a firm where an anything goes culture reigns, the downside of this culture is also immense.

  • Tone at the top and unethical executive decision-making – In a series of overnight meetings, the firm’s senior management decides to hold a “fire sale” and dump their toxic assets to limit their own exposure by dispersing the risk through the markets and ripping off their counterparty broker-dealers. They also know that their customers will quickly realize what they are doing and be disenchanted by the deceptive sale of only their troubled mortgage-backed securities holdings. Senior management justifies and solidifies their choice to destabilize the entire market and subject counterparties and clients to losses to avoid their own bankruptcy.

  • Lack of business sustainability due to dishonest practices – By selling the toxic mortgage-backed securities to the counterparty firms which should be their trusted partners, the traders end their careers, as no one will do business with them again in the future. They are compensated handsomely with promised bonus pay-outs, but there is another large reduction in workforce once their dirty work is done. The principals of the firm plan to profit from the coming financial crisis, but their business as it was, as an investment bank, is over.

  • “It’s just money” – moral relativism as justification of unethical behavior – The CEO and chairman of the board takes an apparent long view on the actions of his firm, seeing their choice to deceptively unload toxic assets on the market in order to stem their own losses by kicking off systemic disorder, as a mere reaction. “It’s just money” is a wilful disconnection from the human and integrity costs; believing that the entire economic system is a historic construct makes wrongdoing within it blameless. However, this is not reality; financial crises have real impacts and victims, and money is not just “pieces of paper with pictures on it.”

At every turn, Margin Call exemplifies bad corporate conduct, insufficient compliance and governance controls, and unethical decision-making. This movie provides a primer as to the devolving organizational accountability that set the stage for the 2008 financial crisis.