Most thrillers in the financial industry happen in the world’s largest financial centres, such as New York and London.
Think of the US subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
While all of this may seem distant to Malaysians living in another time zone, the internet and streaming platforms are rapidly closing the gap. One would only need to spend a few minutes
browsing through Netflix to find interesting titles that document exciting stories happening in faraway nations with vivid video footage and colourful images.
Fugitive: The Curious Case of Carlos Ghosn, for example, details the intriguing event in which Carlos Ghosn, former CEO and chairman of Renault and Nissan, was charged by Tokyo prosecutors for financial misconduct and fled the country in a suitcase.
There is also Eat the Rich: The GameStop Saga, which recounts how a community of amateur traders plotted a plan to beat Wall Street at its own game and Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard explains how the poster child of the European financial technology industry was a sham.
Stretching back further in time, The Laundromat is a fiction comedy that takes its viewers on a tour to discover the dark side of offshore legal firms that help businessmen and politicians set up to avoid taxes and business responsibilities.
The Wealth team, which watched through these series amid the hustle and bustle at work as the year fast approaches its end, has put together a compilation for readers’ holiday viewing.
GameStop: Class battles in the stock market
By Ravinya Ravimalar
Apart from causing health problems, the Covid-19 pandemic altered many people’s perceptions of time and space. Trapped within four walls with our days passing indifferently, lives were paused and incomes stalled. The only thing that grew during this time was the gap and clashes between the wealthy and the less wealthy. These conflicts between the small-time investors and the high-and-mighty hedge fund managers took place in an unlikely venue: the stock market.
The story of the conflict between the two classes during the mid-pandemic (in late 2020 and early 2021) is told in an uncomplicated, elementary manner by Netflix’s Eat the Rich: GameStop Saga.
The three-part documentary series is a story on the rise and fall of GameStop, a common bricks-and-mortar video game store whose share price jumped to US$81 per share in weeks from just US$5.
GameStop has one of the most sensational and puzzling financial stories of recent years. When it started as a conventional pre-owned video game store in the US, digital games were already taking over the market. Both Microsoft and Sony were fighting tooth and nail with their offers of subscription services and a plethora of free games. The intense competition resulted in several GameStop stores shutting down.
Given the David vs Goliath reference in the series, many Reddit users congregated in the subreddit and invested in stocks for GameStop to save it from hedge fund investors betting on its lapse. Groups on TikTok were also bidding on GameStop’s stock price when hedge funds had been shorting it. The trend went viral and the value of the stock rose tremendously, resulting in hedge fund managers suffering millions of dollars in losses.
An appealing point in the series is the adequate use of memes and social media references sandwiched between a fair amount of humour. Due to its loaded issues, the memes and GIFs help with understanding the context of the show.
Each episode is easy to watch with minimal brain effort needed to concentrate. Viewers may even watch it in one sitting. Well, the duration for all three episodes combined is almost two hours.
I feel GameStop is another beginner-friendly documentary series. Those who struggle with financial lingo will have a breakthrough with this series as the pundits and characters in it explain how things work with hedge funds, short selling and the stock-up fiasco with Robinhood, among others, in a simple and easy-to-understand manner.
Wirecard: A public-listed company that turned out to be a fraud
By Kiran Jacob
Wirecard was a multibillion-dollar financial company in Europe. It was at the centre of an international financial scandal with allegations of accounting malpractice. Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard, follows the true story of journalists from the Financial Times (FT) investigating these malpractices, ultimately leading to the company’s collapse.
The documentary ties down every detail to a tee, despite how complicated the proceedings that take place in the film may be. I was engrossed from start to finish, unable to believe the financial scandal that was taking place. Audiences looking for a film that exposes the dark side of the business will find this documentary right up their alley.
The director, James Erskine, highlighted the story of a team of journalists, particularly FT’s Dan McCrum, as they uncover the truth behind Wirecard’s fraudulent financial reporting. The documentary also shows how Wirecard went out of its way to discredit the journalists in an attempt to spike the story.
Wirecard did everything from setting up shell companies to laundering money for criminals. The company was embroiled in complex schemes. For example, it used prepaid cash cards to launder money between criminals.
The film also illustrates how the aspirations of a country, Germany in this case, could cloud the views of its government and regulators. Interviewees in the film tell of how the country was in search of a company to bring the nation into the limelight. For a short while, Wirecard seemed to be the answer.
Essentially, the documentary was able to make good use of the real-life recordings to portray how Wirecard was essentially a money laundering programme for a few people. Even more absurd was the fact that companies listed as Wirecard partners did not exist.
For me, the main highlight was seeing the investigative process unfold. The amount of work, pain and hardship poured into it by the journalists was impressively portrayed. It was also inspiring to see what makes a journalist tick.
The company used many tactics, including wiretapping and intimidation, against journalists to prevent them from pursuing the story. It was frustrating to see how, despite the journalists exposing the truth, the company still managed to grow its money. But it was also equally gratifying to see the journalists get their win at the end of it.
Overall, I would recommend this documentary to anyone interested in stories written in the style of Robert Ludlum and watching them unfold in real life.
Carlos Ghosn: A lesson in governance
By Tan Zhai Tun
The story of Carlos Ghosn, former CEO and chairman of Renault and Nissan, is a cautionary tale about bad governance. It provides food for thought about the significance of governance.
Most people who follow business news in Asia would be familiar with Ghosn’s dramatic escape from Japan in 2019, after being accused of financial misconduct. Netflix’s recent documentary, Fugitive: The Curious Case of Carlos Ghosn, retells the story with a great deal of suspense and input from key individuals. This includes Ghosn’s former boss, colleagues, sister and even his housekeeper, who attested to his character.
Ghosn’s rise to power is an inspiring one. He is credited with turning around the French car maker Renault and was later tasked with doing the same with Nissan after the French and Japanese automakers struck an alliance. His success made him an industry icon.
But discontent began to take root even as his achievements were celebrated. People questioned whether he could effectively manage two Fortune 500 companies at the same time, much less in two vastly different countries.
Some of his former colleagues said that anyone who questioned Ghosn would be silenced. Whispers that he was misusing company funds began to get louder. Things took a turn for the worse when he wanted to push for a merger between the two companies, against Nissan’s wishes.
In 2018, he was arrested in Japan for allegedly underreporting his pay and for using company assets for personal purposes. He was kept in a cell for 130 days in solitary confinement. Three months later, he finally got access to a lawyer and was released on bail.
In December 2019, he fled the country, claiming that he would not get a fair trial there, and became a fugitive in Lebanon, where he is now stuck. Interpol has issued a notice for the arrest of Ghosn, while Japan and France have issued arrest warrants to investigate Ghosn. Because of these shenanigans, Renault and Nissan shareholders suffered.
Could investors have seen this coming? If we take on an environmental, social and governance (ESG) lens, I think Ghosn would have failed the governance criteria several times. For one, there is his high remuneration and purchase or rental of expensive housing through the company, which is in stark contrast with the cost-cutting layoffs he used to do.
The documentary included a snippet when a shareholder questioned Ghosn’s high remuneration, which he says was 20 times the normal worker’s wage. Japanese prosecutors said Ghosn underreported his pay by about ¥5 billion (RM161,456) between 2011 and 2015, which he has denied.
Second, investors should question the concentration of power in Ghosn and lack of checks and balances in the company.
Robert C Pozen, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former president of Fidelity Investments, highlighted a few key governance weaknesses in Nissan in a 2018 article for Harvard Business Review. For one, the company had no audit, compensation or nominating committee.
When Japan reformed its corporate governance code in 2015 to require two independent directors, Nissan initially resisted but eventually complied by electing two directors with no business experience. Cross-holding of shares between companies with close business ties, like Renault and Nissan, also means shareholders cannot hold management accountable for misconduct.
Third, public governance is crucial for companies to function and for shareholders’ interests to be protected. Some suspect that Ghosn’s charges were a ploy by the new leadership at Nissan, who were unhappy with him. This suspicion is difficult to clear without a fair and thorough investigation, in which Ghosn would have an opportunity to clear his name as well.
His lack of confidence in the public governance of Japan’s justice system has left many questions unanswered and tainted his reputation since he chose to flee. Ghosn said he is willing to be tried in a French court, but unfortunately, his movements are restricted.
My only personal wish is for the documentary to spend less time retelling the story and instead investigate the question of whether Ghosn is guilty of those charges and if he made the right decision to flee.
The Laundromat (2019): A money laundering primer
By Pathma Subramaniam
“Follow the money” is a catchphrase often used in newsrooms whenever there is a whiff of scandal in the air. But it is a path that is riddled with mind-boggling complexities — this is what director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns tried to achieve with their money laundering whistleblower saga The Laundromat.
The fiction comedy is inspired by the 2017 book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers by Pulitzer-winning journalist Jake Bernstein, which takes viewers through dizzying machinations that ultimately led to the leak of the Panama Papers.
For the uninitiated, the Panama Papers are a trove of 11.5 million leaked documents from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that was published in 2016. The records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which worked with partners globally to reveal how the rich and powerful exploited secretive offshore tax regimes.
At least 1,784 Malaysians were named, including former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s son Nazifuddin and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s son Mirzan. Many unexplained transactions in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal money trail involving offshore entities registered in the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands are supposedly linked to the Panama Papers exposé.
The film begins with Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman), the lawyers who ran the Panamanian firm, walking viewers through the history of money and providing a deadpan narration of how ill-gotten gains are laundered through a broken-down global financial system.
These scenes are intertwined with a tragic capsize of a boat that kills Ellen Martin’s (played by Meryl Streep) husband, Joe, and 20 others. Martin and the families of the other victims do not get the settlement promised, thanks to many elaborate snafus involving the boat company’s reinsurers and therefore, they are unable to sue the people guilty of negligence.
Instead of just accepting the misfortune of a measly settlement, Martin started snooping around, first by locating the reinsurer’s shell company in Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean and one of tens of thousands Mossack Fonseca created around the world.
Many other victims and villains are woven into the plot as Martin sleuths, including how a cheating husband and father tricks his wife and daughter into keeping his infidelity quiet by offering them shares allegedly worth US$20 million in one of his many investment companies, and the retelling of British businessman Neil Heywood’s (renamed Maywood in the film) death when he demanded more money from politically connected wealthy Chinese looking to transfer money abroad to keep their fortunes away from prying authorities.
While the storyline comes off rather patchy at first, in hindsight, I believe that the film’s befuddling presentation is key to understanding the guileful and pervasive nature of money laundering.
I could do without the side plots because they are too brief to have any real impact. And the lack of nail-biting drama, which seemed to hover on the periphery of the film, was disappointing.
For those trying to wrap their heads around the ongoing 1MDB court drama, the movie’s jaunty approach to complicated terms and loopholes in the financial system may serve as a precursor.