'Margin Call' Lifts Veil On A Wall Street Meltdown

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Zachary Quinto, left, and Penn Badgley are shown in a scene from "Margin Call." (AP/Roadside Attractions)
Zachary Quinto, left, and Penn Badgley are shown in a scene from "Margin Call." (AP/Roadside Attractions)

The New Yorker's David Denby calls the new movie "Margin Call" "easily the best Wall Street film ever made."

NPR critic David Edelstein calls the timing "almost too good."

The film opens amid massive layoffs at a high-flying Wall Street firm, and events go downhill from there. One of the firm's analysts, played by Zachary Quinto, discovers that, because of some past risky investing, the firm's demise is imminent.

Over the next 24 hours, executives decide to unload investment holdings with the full knowledge that the move will severely damage the market and thousands of the company's investors.

Writer and director J.C. Chandor is familiar with this world-- his father was an investment banker with Merrill Lynch for over thirty years.

Chandor told Here & Now's Robin Young that in his film there are no heroes, and there are no villains-- his characters are all doing what they need to be doing in order to survive.

"What I wanted to do... is to actually look at what it felt like to be at that place at that time and then hopefully you actually understand the decision-making process of the characters," he said.

Chandor depicts analysts who are hesitant to report questionable practices, out of fear of losing their paychecks that keep their fast and expensive lifestyles afloat-- something the banks in his films count on.

"They pay you just enough to feel rich and not so much that you can ever quite walk away. They want you to be there on a tether," Chandor said.


  • J.C. Chandor, "Margin Call" writer and director

Listener Andrew Oram of Vermont responded to J.C. Chandor's comment that buying on the margin is extremely dangerous.

Oram writes:

"Margin in a brokerage account is merely a financial instrument. Inherently the average mortgage is far riskier than any use of margin. The rule on margin is that you can borrow up to ½ of the value of your holdings to buy more.(sometimes when the markets have been roiled the margin % is reduced to 40% of equity.) By definition then the highest debt to equity ratio one can have on margin is 50%. The average house is probably close to 70% leveraged and many new purchases are 95 or even 100% leveraged. In terms of the proportion of capital at risk a house is far risker.

To do a full analysis however we must look at the volatility of the housing market relative to the stock market. Because the stock market usually varies in price more regularly than the housing market (2009 not withstanding) the value of the underlying assets changes more dramatically in stocks than in homes. If you are maxing out your margin capability and the market drops the value of your equity falls and your margin % thereby increases over 50%. The margin call is your broker saying you have until tomorrow to send us cash to bring the ratio to over 50% or we start selling your holdings to bring you back to that proportion.
Let me tell you about my last use of margin. I was managing a modest family portfolio of 200K . One of my brothers was in the process of selling one house and buying another and for a short amount of time he owned two houses and he was in a cash bind. He needed 20K to get by for the 1 to 2 month period until the old house closed and he would have the capital from that house at that time. Our choices were 1) he could borrow 20K on credit cards at 14 to 20% 2) we could sell holdings in the account to raise 20K cask for him but we are selling investments we want to keep into a down market,3) Home equity loan, complicated and potentially expensive because he has two houses each of which have mortgaged value. Lots of headache for a loan that he will have for a term of 2 months on, Like he doesn’t already have enough stress with two mortgages. 4) borrow 20K on margin against the 200K brokerage account at 6.5% interest (annual rate) for two months. In order for us to get a “margin call” the underlying equities would have to fall in value from 200K to $39,999 a 60% drop in the market and even then I’d only need a dollar to make the margin call. This would be the equivalent of the DJIA falling to 4800 from its current 12,001. Is there any doubt that the most prudent selection between these 4 options is the “extremely dangerous” use of margin. The reality is that Margin is a solid financial tool in the hands of a prudent person. Can imprudent use of it lead to financial ruin? You bet just like imprudent choices in buying houses or taking on credit card debt."

This segment aired on November 3, 2011.


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