The most important film in the 2016 Oscar race is The Big Short, which has five nominations, one of which is for best picture. The reason for its importance is the relevance of its subject matter—the greed, stupidity, and corruption that led to the collapse of the financial markets in 2008. All you need to do is read about the dizzying rise and fall of the Chinese stock market or the subprime-fueled bubble in auto loan securitizations in the United States to see that we have by no means made the money-mad world between 2001 and 2008 a thing of the past.
Even though The Big Short is successful in making a really complicated and, as a consequence, mind-numbing topic (derivatives and securities trading) understandable and even funny, it still needs some background for its insights to be better appreciated.
Three groups of experts saw the crash of 2008 coming. There were the Marxists (for example, the writers at the NYC-based Monthly Review), then the heterodox economists (such as the Australian Steve Keen, whose work and ideas are promoted by the locally based website IDEA Economics), and, finally, investment managers who saw that many of the collateralized debt obligations (CDO) sold by investment banks were actually worthless and so bought credit default swaps (CDS) on those CDOs.
What this CDO and CDS business means: CDOs connect an investor to revenue streams from a variety of mortgages. The dream of all dreams was that this class of financial product could not go bad because it was so mixed. They pooled mortgage payments from the satisfied in Manhattan with those of the worried working-class folks in the suburbs of Phoenix. Risk was further reduced by breaking these securities into tranches, or sections, that ranged from safe (low yield) to not that safe (high yield). Lastly, to reduce risk completely, the investor could buy an insurance policy, a credit default swap, that would protect him/her from default on this debt product. Many believed CDSs made the world a safer place.
But here is the funny thing, and here is the core of The Big Short: Why is an insurance policy called a swap? A CDS is not really an insurance policy, because the ownership of a CDO and a CDS is not strictly correlated. You can buy the latter without owning the former. This is like allowing strangers to buy insurance policies on my life.
The result of this absurdity is obvious: All of those strangers will want me dead. Meaning, they would be shorting my life. If people happen to see me smoking a cigarette, they can stop whatever they are doing, rush to AIG, and buy my life-insurance policy. This is what perceptive investment managers did to the US economy. They wanted to make money on its death.
Hollywood has made a very good movie about the years leading up to the crash. But because the filmmakers could never (and probably did not desire to) sell the studios a movie about the Marxists or heterodox economists who predicted the crash (both have motives that are regarded with great suspicion in our society), they picked the investment managers. Also there was a book that approached their point of view (that of the perceptive investment manager) with the narrative force of a novel. The leap from the page to the screen was fairly easy.
But there is another reason why perceptive investment managers were selected as the vehicle for this story. Financial products like CDOs and CDSs are extremely complicated, and so it's not easy to explain what they mean or what they involve without boring the living shit out of an ordinary person. The Big Short wouldn't work if it didn't have a way of making all of this difficulty accessible and even entertaining to ordinary people, and that way is this: exposing the complexity of these financial products as total bullshit. The Big Short is a comedy.
A movie based on Steve Keen's excellent book Debunking Economics, for example, would have been a better film about the economic crash, but it would have been lost on most filmgoers and been ignored by the Oscars. When it comes to economics, do not make the movie you think people might watch, but the one you know they will watch. People are watching The Big Short.