How "Wall Street" Changed Wall Street

This weekend, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is released in movie theaters nationwide.

For this weekend's upcoming Motley Fool Money radio show, I interviewed Nell Minow, co-founder of The Corporate Library and the film critic "Movie Mom", to discuss her thoughts on the film and how Wall Street has changed since Gordon Gekko was first introduced. What follows is part of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Chris Hill: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ... when we spoke back in May, you said you were bearish on the movie. We did a Buy, Sell, or Hold and you said you were bearish on the movie until you saw the trailer, and then you were a "hold" and sort of leaning toward a "buy." Now you have seen the movie.

Minow: Yes, I have.

Hill: What did you think?

Minow: I am sticking with my "hold." But before I get to the movie, I want to just revisit the first one for a second because I think that is helpful in understanding this one. The first one was 23 years ago, and there is a fascinating interview with the costume designer who worked on both movies in Esquire this month, and she talks about the iconic attire that she created for Gordon Gekko, who was sort of the uber-corporate raider of the first movie. She said at one point Oliver Stone came to her and said, "My friends on Wall Street said nobody dresses like that." She said "This is a movie. This is not a documentary."

What is interesting about it is that now they do dress like that. That movie was a leading indicator of how Wall Street was going to see itself, and in a way, I think it did pour gasoline on the fire and was a bit of a contributor. It was intended as a cautionary tale, just like Michael Lewis' book Liar's Poker was, and in both cases instead of being seen as cautionary tales, they were seen as guidebooks.

Hill: My roommate in college had a poster on the wall that was the epic "Greed is good" speech. He had that thing memorized.

Minow: And I don't know if you saw the movie Boiler Room, but at one point, the guys in the pump-and-dump operation all sit down and watch it together and recite all the lines. It appears to be frequent ritual from these guys, so yeah, it created their dreams. So how do you, as Oliver Stone, revisit this, thinking that you were really putting a stake through the heart of the era and instead you created a monster? I think that is one reason that the second movie has a level of ambivalence that I found disappointing.

Now I have to give you two reviews very quickly. The first one, I am going to give as a person who deals with the financial markets. I'd give it a failing grade there because the characters act in ways that I think real people don't. They do some obviously illegal and obviously foolish things. One character, for example, wants to get revenge on another, so he spreads a bad rumor about his stock. You know what? That's illegal!

Hill: I was going to say, don't we have laws around that sort of thing?

Minow: Yeah, we do have laws about that and he is unaware of them. He learns about them later on. There is nobody on Wall Street that doesn't understand that from Day One. And also you burn your bridges. A lot of Wall Street, to this day, still runs on trust and on who you listen to and who you share secrets with, and all of the people that he said, "I am totally solid on this" that are never going to deal with him again. So I thought that that part of it was unrealistic and I thought that the point of the movie was unclear about whose side it wanted us to be on.

Hill: When the first movie came out more than 20 years ago, obviously we were living in a very different world in terms of media, no Internet, no Twitter, but I think that that film had an enormous impact in part because it brought many people, myself included, into a world that we didn't really know much or anything about. Now here it is 23 years later and we have just gone through two years of a financial crisis. Do you think the financial crisis helps or hurts a movie like this?

Minow: Well, that is a perfect lead-in to my second review, to sort of my mainstream, regular movie critic review, and that is, is this movie accessible enough in terms of the financial information to be appealing to a mainstream audience? And I am not sure that it is. There is a lot of gobbledygook in there and God knows there is no more gookygobble than CDOs and sub-prime derivatives, but it doesn't really explain the situation in a way that I think is dramatically interesting, and similarly, the character of Gordon Gekko, he is neither the good guy nor the bad guy in enough of a compelling way to make it work, I think, just as a straight drama. I think people are a little bit sick of Wall Street right now, Wall Street the concept, and they wanted something a little more cathartic than they are going to get from this movie.

Hill: When you look at big Wall Street firms -- your Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) and JPMorgan Chases (NYSE: JPM  ) -- what has been the most positive development in corporate governance since the original Wall Street movie came out more than 20 years ago, and what has been the most negative?

Minow: I think the most positive has been the raised consciousness in board rooms and in the shareholder community, and I mean now the institutional shareholder community, that they cannot be asleep at the switch. As I have said to you many times before, when I first came into this business in 1986, O.J. Simpson was on five corporate boards and he was on an audit committee, and no one was writing about that or caring about that. Today that would be a very big red flag and people would be shorting the stock.

So I think now boards are a lot more active, they are a lot more committed, they are a lot more independent and shareholders, the idea when I first got into this business, that we actually got two figures in support. We got double-digits of over 10% of support from shareholders for a shareholder initiative -- that was seismic. Now we have had this year a number of directors who have received less than half of the support from the shareholders. Some of the companies have continued to keep them on anyway, but that leads us to proxy access, which I think is a very good development too. So I think that has been the best thing.

In terms of the worst thing, I think that it is the perverse incentives and for me, the incentive compensation was really at the core of the financial meltdown because everybody in the system managed to find a way to externalize all the downside and to keep all the upside. That is a recipe for disaster.

Are you planning to see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? Let us know, and share your review, in the comments below.

The interview with Nell Minow airs this weekend on Motley Fool Money on radio stations across America and on iTunes. Chris Hill does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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