"It's going to blow up one day"

Marc Bauder's Master of the Universe runs like a sociological narrative of high finance as experienced by one man, former investment banker Rainer Voss. Film review.

Oliver Huitson
5 June 2014

Shot mostly from an abandoned trading floor and consisting of mainly Voss speaking, interspersed with occasional news footage, it lacks the scope of a film like Inside Job but it does give a very human account of the crazy days of global finance - an era that refuses to die.

Voss talks of the atmosphere at the banks as like being in "the army": conformity is strongly instilled, asking questions is frowned upon and 'politics' is an almost forbidden topic of conversation. It brought to mind a recent article by Geoffrey Heptonstall:

"There is no virtue in questioning the way things are done. Individuals are such a nuisance where the corporate will is the supreme governance."

Master of the Universe.jpg

HBOS' head of regulatory risk, Paul Moore, for instance, was sacked in 2004 for what he describes as asking too many questions and challenging the management over risky practices. In 2008 the bank ran into severe difficulties and was eventually merged with Lloyds TSB, as well as requiring a taxpayer bailout of around £30bn.

Many of the bankers on astronomic salaries would have been simple accountants if they had arrived 5 years earlier or later, Voss argues, suggesting many of those 'masters of the universe' who feel they are truly worth such colossal sums are simply in the right place at the right time. On the products sold, the film cuts to footage from a Senate hearing in the US where Goldman's executives faced a grilling for pushing products to their customers that they described themselves as "shitty". Voss explains that his bank couldn't sell the products they created to BMW or Siemens, because big firms used similar economic modelling to the banks themselves, but municipalities on the other hand did not - they were sold to because they didn't have the knowledge and modelling that the banks had.

"Are the clients aware of what they're buying?" 

Voss: "No. That's the whole scandal. (I don't want that to be recorded)."

One of the cornerstones of free market theory is that in perfect markets all participants enjoy 'perfect knowledge' and that prices are indicative of that knowledge. Clearly the reality was very different, and huge profits were made selling products to buyers on the basis of their relative ignorance. Laissez-faire regulation is rationalised on the basis that the two market counterparties--buyer and seller--are best placed to judge the risks of the transaction and hence government should 'get out the way'. Clearly, at least one of the parties here, the buyer, was not well placed to judge the risks involved, and the other, the seller, was ultimately protected from risk by the state in various ways (not least multi-billion pound bailouts) and the mismatch between their short term salaries and bonuses and the long term effects of their trades. Voss goes on to describe the "lemming" mentality of bankers and their buyers--municipalities in this instance--and says "it's only human", and he's right, but the lemming is a far cry from the 'rational agent' of orthodox doctrine. Products have become so complex, with so many consultants and lawyers involved, that very few of those either buying or selling the products really understand them, he argues.

On the social value of much financial activity, Adair Turner's "socially useless" description seems apt. Twenty years ago, Voss says, the average holding time for shares was four years. Today it's 22 seconds. Banking is increasingly detached from its traditional core role of supplying credit whilst share purchasers have become increasingly detached from the notion of 'investment'; most trading is pure speculation.

The pressure on bank executives for ever bigger profits is immense, their bosses attitude is "I don't care how you do it", he says, a force which pushes those involved "in the direction of illegality". The sort of environment in which this sort of practice can continue must by nature be detached, to some degree, from everyday society. This goes beyond just the hyper-conformity and militaristic discipline, but includes a social world largely sealed off from reality: their children go to the same schools, bank owned creches, and they mix in the same social circle. He talks of a real "disconnection from social processes", mirroring the increasingly large disconnect between the financial economy and the real economy post-08. At a recent Civitas event in London that I attended, a young Goldmans employee seemed completely baffled at the notion that the UK economy was in anything other than great shape: it's not just that finance is decoupled from the real economy, its that many of its employees aren't even aware of such a disconnect.

On the global meltdown, Voss describes the situation as banks "holding a gun to politicians heads", despite the crisis really being "in the private sector", and talks of the enormous profits made on Greek bonds. Asked 'where's next', he replies "France", at which point it's "game over", "it's going to blow up one day, either politically or financially". So far, the power of the financial lobby has ensured the crises have been largely political, with unrest across the globe as the price of keeping the financial world afloat and million dollar bonuses flowing freely. Only Iceland took a different route, that of financial detonation. For the rest of us, "there is no way this is going to have a happy ending".

The film is nicely shot and maintains its bleak, sterile feel throughout, but it remains personal snapshot and the viewer is restricted to Voss' account, an account which sees deregulation as blameless, banking as largely void of criminal conduct, and he is reluctant throughout to address the questions of what really went wrong, if anything.

The strongest emotion that shines through is nostalgia: Voss misses that life, that world. As a window into the life of a single investment banker and the culture in which he thrived, the film is impressive, but it's a pity Voss was not pressed on some of the bigger questions which could have provided a slightly more contextualised vehicle for his highly watchable reminiscence.

Master of the Universe will have its UK premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London at 18:30 on 20 June. Rainer Voss (the "Master" himself) will be present at the screening and there will be a post-show discussion between him and Alasdair King (Senior Lecturer, Film Studies at QMUL). Get tickets here

openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.

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