If you have not seen “The Big Short” yet, you should. It is smart, funny and extremely well made. This movie is a portrayal of a few individuals that anticipated the 2008 financial crisis. The film has been well received because of the plausible and captivating story. The movie itself had elements of a documentary including real names and a well-defined point of view. However, this documentary-like portrayal of the 2008 financial crisis bolsters misconceptions about the cause of the event.
The view expressed in the movie is that the housing market crash was caused the greed of big banks and the falsification of mortgage quality by rating agencies. While this is true to an extent, the banks were much more concerned about the bottom lines that they were trying to keep for shareholders. Before the crisis occurred, the conditions of the markets changed in two important ways: the emergence of the housing bubble and the growing movement to make the path to homeownership easier. These changes created the conditions that lead to the crisis.
From 1996 to 2006, the housing prices rose an average of 5.6 percent each year. This price increase transformed all loans, including the bad ones, into good loans. Borrowers could usually refinance or sell the house if they couldn’t pay for them and make a profit due to rising housing prices. This created attractive opportunities to banks due to the continually rising house prices and the illusion that all investments were good ones.
Another view expressed in the film is that bankers targeted low income individuals in order to make a profit. While banks did indeed target low income groups, it was not with malicious intent. In the pre-crisis period, there was as growing movement to make it easier for disadvantaged and low-income groups to own a home. Because of this, big banks were legally mandated that a percentage of the loans they had were comprised of these low income groups. This federal underwriting ensured that banks accepted certain mortgage applications that would normally be turned down.
While “The Big Short” is a good movie, it should be watched with a grain of salt. It presents the banks as evil cooperate machines that were aware of their actions and the potential consequences. In reality, this is not the case: the conditions leading up to the financial crisis are extremely complex and cannot be reduced to corporate greed.