Perhaps fittingly, we are starting with a film entitled simply Dealers. Made in 1989 and set in the London proprietary-trading office of an American investment bank, the fictitious Whitney Paine, it comes over at times as something of a period piece, with clunky equipment and antiquated dealing procedures. Yet it is well worth watching, and not only as a reminder of what was considered cutting edge trading at the time.
Paul McGann plays a British dealer who wants to succeed the bank’s senior trader, who has taken his own life. Rebecca De Mornay plays an equally high-flying American trader who has other ideas. Tension ratchets up as the McGann character finds one of his trading positions is seriously under water.
In positing an American-owned future for the City, Dealers reflected the conventional wisdom of the late Eighties. Interestingly, the television series Capital City (1989-1990), which was shot in the trading room set used for Dealers, featured an episode in which the fictional British bank Shane Longman is set to fall to a Japanese rival.
From fact to fiction, and to the 2009 reality documentary Million Dollar Traders. Over three episodes, hedge fund trader Lex van Dam tries to turn 12 ordinary British people, including a recruitment consultant and a student, into successful day traders. Produced by Century Films for BBC 2, the series was given added edge by the very turbulent market conditions of that time.
Nick Leeson: how not to trade
Ten years earlier, there would have been rather less dramatic tension, given the raging bull market at the end of the 20th Century. The original 12 are reduced to eight as some leave, and the surviving novices showed good signs of having achieved near-professional trader status. Their baptism by fire obviously paid off.
Very much in the how not to operate in financial markets category is Rogue Trader, the 1999 movie about Nick Leeson, the man in charge of the Singapore office of Barings and whose dealing activities brought that venerable bank to its knees. In early 1995, it emerged that Leeson had made huge bets that had gone bad on him, and had concealed the fact by the simple process of hiding the details of his loss-making trades in a drawer.
Ewan McGregor plays Leeson in this film version, and Anna Friel plays his wife Lisa. As the losses top £800 million, and Barings in London begins to get some inkling that all is not well, the pair flee to Malaysia and try to get back to London.
However, Leeson is arrested en route at Frankfurt, extradited to Singapore and sentenced to more than six years in prison. Barings is sold to the Dutch bank ING.
Perhaps the funniest scene in the film occurs when top brass from Barings hold a dinner to which Leeson, a semi-heroic figure in the bank on account of the “profits” he is supposedly making, fantasises about simply telling his senior colleagues that there is no-one on the other side of these trades, that the clients are all invented and that he has been playing with the bank’s own money.
A Wall Street legend
It may seem that a US documentary entitled simply Trader will probably do little more than what it says on the tin. Furthermore, the fact it was made in 1987 suggests it is of little more than historical interest.
But these impressions would be wrong. Trader is centred on hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones and his company Tudor Investments. Given that Tudor Jones was seen predicting (accurately) a sharp fall in the market and showed him also involved in charity work, one may have thought he would have welcomed the final edit.
In fact, as has passed into Wall Street legend, Tudor Jones, for reasons that have never been established, hated the documentary and tried to buy up all the copies ever made.
In those analogue days, this severely restricted the supply of Trader copies but only piqued the interest of those keen to see what the fuss was about, and a lively black market in low-quality copies resulted. Today, it can be seen on the internet.
Shorting the orange juice market
Finally, we have saved the best until last. Trading Places, released in 1983, manages to be one of the funniest films ever made while also teaching the viewer a fair bit about the commodities market.
Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) are a pair of elderly and crooked commodity brokers. Their big project is to get hold of a government report into orange production before it is published, allowing them either to corner the frozen concentrated orange juice market or short it, depending on whether production is higher or lower than the market is expecting.
As a side-line, they bet that they can ruin Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), the obnoxious preppie who runs their brokerage, while at the same time transforming a small-time ghetto hood Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) into a successful commodity trader and executive.
It all goes awry when, through various twists and turns, Winthorpe and Valentine become aware of what they are up to, join forces and manage to supply them with a faked orange crop report, suggesting that the harvest has not been bountiful, when the opposite is the case.
The Dukes corner the market and, at the critical moment, Winthorpe and Valentine short, aggressively. When the real report is released, the Dukes are ruined.
Watch this film for the period touches, especially for the laughably small sums of money involved, at least by todays standards. Watch it for the frenzied atmosphere of open-outcry trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange (the trading floor is long gone) as well as to remember when a car telephone and a milky, wobbly black and white trading screen, were the peak of new technology.
On top of all this, it is a lovely Christmas movie. Who could ask for more?