It is an interesting coincidence that Gordon Gekko, that lasting rogue trader-corporate raider character from the iconic 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street, makes a comeback in movie theatres when the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensex is perched above the 20,000 mark once again. The BSE Sensex has tested these peaks earlier, and bit the dust afterwards as the global meltdown came to Indian shores in late 2008.
Already, even as Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the second Gekko film, was ready to hit the screens, a business magazine has put Michael Douglas in his Gekko avatar on the cover and done a story delving into aspects of greed and whether greed was back at Wall Street. And those who have followed Gekko’s journey to the top and then to jail and back will surely want to know whether a ‘reformed’ Gordon Gekko has something interesting to say to them, after his now classic line in the first Wall Street film: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
I have loved Gekko the character, and relished the many facets of his nature. The unabashed greed and espousal of his cause, his unbridled ambition, his intelligence, his understanding of balance sheets and corporate manoeuvres, his ability to influence—indeed, use—others to his advantage, all of these made for a compelling study in good and evil.
In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, though, Gekko emerges more as a positive, if under-reformed, human being than the scheming market manipulator he was. Yes, the burning ambition remains, the ability to influence people and have his way, intact. But this Gekko is more human, more philosophical. And that is, perhaps, a fallout of the times he has chosen to make his comeback in.
The film has some typical Gekkoisms which are bound to remain with market maniacs long after the film’s credit lines roll. “The bulls make money, the bears make money. It’s the pigs that get slaughtered,” says Gekko, now the author of a book on greed but still a master at figures and figuring out markets.
On another occasion, he gives some sage advice. “Money is a bitch,” he says, “She never sleeps.” He says if you don’t pay enough attention to money, you will wake up to find she has run away. Stone’s second Wall Street film is replete with throwbacks to the financial crisis of 2008, the collapse of mega financial institutions and banks, the attempts at bailouts by the Federal Reserve, and the fall of the mighty investment bankers who used to rule the Street earlier.
But the interesting difference in Gekko this time is his attack on the new financial set up and the manner in which it was allowed to feed on itself and then fail. Returning from jail and delivering a lecture while hardselling his book Is Greed Good?, Gekko says, “Someone reminded me I once said ‘Greed is good.’ Now it seems it’s legal,” and then talks of the culture of spending and consumerism and of the housing boom and subprime crisis.
Reeling off acronyms for the several collateralised debt obligation (CDO)-type derivatives which were at the root of the crisis, Gekko tells his audience that they are essentially WMDs: weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, this Gekko is not all about greed anymore.
To that extent, the return of Gekko is perfectly timed. Coming back to the Indian context and the Sensex, this time’s 20,000, most believe, is quite different from the last. That 20,000 was hype, herd instinct and a mad rush to be first to the post. This time, it has taken longer, and the level has been reached well after the dust of the crisis has settled, balance sheets have been cleaned up, companies have cut costs and the over-ambitious have learnt their lessons. This 20,000, as analyst Dhirendra Kumar has argued in a recent article, has been achieved without the kind of velocity seen last time. That in itself is a good sign. Much like a reformed Gordon Gekko preaching about the ills of complex derivatives, maybe it is a sign that the market has matured.
But then, can anyone predict what Gekko will do next? And we all know there’s a Gekko lurking inside everyone who plays the market. That is a danger that will never really go away.
These are the author’s personal views.