Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job: The Treason of the Technicians

Documentary film-maker Charles Ferguson is a bona fide scholar with a 1989 Ph D in Political Science from MIT and several books about the IT industry with respectable Google Scholar counts on his cv. He also cofounded a high-tech startup, Vermeer Technologies, which was sold to Microsoft in 1996 for $133 million.

He has in effect endowed the Charles Ferguson chair in public policy research at Charles Ferguson University and communicates his findings in film rather than print. (I’m reminded of an introduction political scientist Harvey Mansfield gave to Camille Paglia: noting that she is a faculty member at the unheralded University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he observed that “Camille Paglia teaches at the university Camille Paglia teaches at” and asked how many other people that could be said about.)

Inside Job is a well-crafted and thought-provoking documentary about the causes, major milestones, and consequences of the financial meltdown of 2008. At times it looks like a Powerpoint deck with slides depicting financial flows and leveraging of credit default swaps.

In making the documentary, Ferguson attempted to interview a large cross-section of financial sector players, academic experts, and public officials. Ferguson’s style of presenting his interviews is similar to Errol Morris’s, but without the Interratron technology. We hear Ferguson’s voice, but we never see him in conversation with his interviewees. The camera focuses directly on the face of the interviewee and, for some, this turned out to be an unnerving if not excruciating confrontation.

Ferguson had the most expansive co-operation from the analysts, for example Nouriel Roubini, who saw the meltdown coming and were most critical of the financial deregulation that caused it. He also had access to senior overseas officials such as French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

But he was virtually shut out when he attempted to talk to senior officials from the Bush or Obama administrations or to anyone in the finance sector. It appears that the word quickly got out that Ferguson was asking uncomfortable questions on camera, and players, likely advised by counsel, refused to speak to him.

But before the door slammed shut, he managed to interview a handful of leading economics and finance academics who served as both policy-makers at the Fed and Council of Economic Advisers, as well as directors and consultants to the financial sector firms. The most notable were Martin Feldstein and John Campbell of the Harvard Economics Department and Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard and Finance Professor Frederic Mishkin.

Ferguson zeroed in on two questionable practices, writing consulting reports arriving at conclusions the financial sector wanted to hear (“deregulation is good and we need more of it”) and serving as directors of financial sector firms. Ferguson unearthed a study lauding Icelandic financial deregulation for which Mishkin was paid $125,000. Feldstein was a long-time director of the insurer AIG until its collapse in 2008. When asked about the Iceland study, Mishkin squirmed, and when asked about AIG, Feldstein smilingly refused to say anything.

Campbell began his interview cheerfully enough, but when Ferguson suggested that consulting reports like Mishkin’s are comparable to medical research supported by the drug companies, he was at a loss for words. And Hubbard finally told Ferguson the interview was not a deposition, regretted speaking to him, and – on camera – gave him three minutes before booting him out.

(Hubbard’s previous claim to fame was as one of those short-listed for the chairmanship of the Fed in 2006. A group of Columbia Business School students made a satirical YouTube video with a viewcount now approaching 1.7 million – titled Glenn Hubbard every breath you take – depicting his assumed envy towards Ben Bernanke.)

In my view, when academics do consulting, they should be attempting to speak truth to power, that is, giving their best professional judgment, as opposed to telling clients what they want to hear. This should mean seeking out views that the client likely doesn’t want to hear, and seriously discussing them. When academics serve as directors, they should be adding value to the deliberations by bringing an outside and skeptical perspective to corporate decision-making.

The big challenge to acting with integrity is corporate money. $125K is a very rich consulting contract. Ferguson tells us that corporate directorships like AIG and the major US banks pay $250 – $300K, which is the equivalent of a handsome salary in academe. That kind of money seduces otherwise smart and skeptical people into saying what the client wants to hear. In addition, there is always the fear that if you don’t say what the client wants you to say, someone else can readily be found who will.

Ferguson’s film is an attempt to hold bankers, financial regulators, and finance academics accountable. It’s one thing to be held accountable in the court of public opinion, another in the court of law, and Ferguson is skeptical that the latter will ever happen. Whether or not the US ever develops a better way of regulating the financial sector is another matter. The issues are complicated and the government is now divided. Still, Ferguson deserves acclaim for his efforts to incite the moral outrage in civil society that might lead to better governance of the financial sector. I consider his film a must-see.

9 comments

  1. Every American should be required to see this film! Twice! Then maybe some change in practices, morality and regulation could take place. Fantastic job Mr. Ferguson.

  2. TOO BIG TO NAIL?

    Thank you Professor Borins:

    Please pass on my website above to Charles Fergusson.
    Under COUNTERFEIT USA, I have linked several pages of my 2004 lawsuit whereby documenting with much detail the financial crimes which occurred and their magnitude in bankrupting the U.S. I am the best proof that the entire senario had been engineered. I wrote part of the script, as I discovered and reported it six years ago, but I was not an insider or accomplice of this criminal scheme. Therefore, I think that I am probably the only “non-insider” and “expert” who has documented this golbal “TREASON” with such certainty, and that it has come to fruition.

    I have been trying to nail Wachovia bank for having purchased World Savings in 2007-2008, soley with drug money, as a collossal drug-money laundering operation. However, quiet evidently various Departments of Justice in the U.S. have been aiding and abetting Wachovia Drug lords to avoid total mandatory forefeitures, by all means, such as non-prosecution, and sweeping the crimes under the rug every which way possible. Thus the problem, is one of total government corruption, and complicity.
    What can be done?
    12/30/2010

  3. Hi Sandford,

    ( could you kindly forward the contents of “my blog” onto Charles Ferguson.

    The movie “Inside Job” has finally got to Australia!

    It is an excellent movie and Charles Ferguson should be given a medal for confronting the “banksters” and politicians involved; while representing the effected populace, so well!

    My only criticism would be, he hasn’t really spelled out the root cause and solution.

    Prosecuting people, (when financial derivative products/trading is legal), will always be difficult. Why not change the law so that derivative trading is banned (it has been done before, in 1936 options on futures were banned in the United States). Many countries ban short selling from time to time, as well.

    I think derivative trading in its current form, is causing massive problems in the global financial markets and should be banned:

    1) How can one man, George Soros break the Bank of England (September 16, 1992) and net $1 Billion in the process?
    2) How can one man, Nick Leeson, bankrupt the London-based Barings Bank in 1995 by hiding $1.4 billion in debt he accumulated as a derivatives trader in Singapore?
    3) How can one man, Jerome Kerviel, cause the French bank Société Générale (in early 2008), to lose $6.7 Billion and eventually crumble?

    I think, the cause is derivative products/trading.

    The recent global financial crisis was caused by US housing loans being turned into a derivative product and no-one being responsible for the final debt.

    The current legislation supporting derivative products/trading; encourages speculation, greed and unscrupulous/dishonest acts, as above.

    The simple solution is to immediately get rid of all derivative products/trading; there is nothing to stop George Soros, Nick Leeson, Jerome Kerviel or the millions of derivative traders out there who are trying to make money “legally”, from doing this again and again and my fear is that eventually the WESTERN ECONOMY COULD MELTDOWN.

    Nobody in their right minds wants this to happen.

    People say “but this would cause chaos and put all these financial services people out of work”. Not necessarily, the “derivative side of the markets”, should be phased out, over time. The “derivative traders” are generally, intelligent, well educated people and should be adding real value to the economy; by making real things and selling them to real people or supplying real services around real products. There are so many business opportunities in areas such as renewable energy, the biotech market and computer technology, to name a few.

    Some of my friends ask me about derivatives and I use the following example:

    “Lets say you own a car and you want to sell or buy 15 cars in the future that you don’t have, that is derivatives. Oh, by the way, you don’t have to own the first car, either”.

    Is it SANE to have a market for something that does NOT EXIST? Or am I missing something??

    If futures markets serve a purpose; they should be backed by the actual asset; not multiples of. A one to one contract between one lender and one borrower of last resort; based on responsibility, risk and return.

    These are good old fashioned commercial values, based on REALITY, that made the US the great country, that it could be again.

    I would appreciate your input as I think this debate needs to go far and wide. Perhaps only the President, if he sees/is shown the light, could do anything about it?

    Best regards,

    Steve Weir

    f.

  4. call of duty world at war e the conduit sono snotltao i primi esperimenti di giochi hardcore su wiie guardate gia che buoni risultati. La politica che che c’era ( ora lentamente sta prendendo un altra rotta pur salvaguardando la precedente), non mirava per niente a titoli hardcore, vuoi perche la davano come console spacciata rispetto alle altre ( adesso sappiamo che tutto il contrario ), vuoi per pubblicita e mobbing spietato e negativo nei confronti di essa; nessuna SH ha voluto rischiare di programmare giochi hardcore anche su wii .ma ora a distanza di 2 anni e mezzo si sono dovuti ricredere viste soprattutto le ottime vendite che quest’ultima sta riscontrando sul mercato. Sono curioso di vedere la grafica del wii quando sara sfruttata a pieno.Inoltre , per cortesia, smettiamola di ricriminare che il wii come una PS2 perche non assolutamente vero; anche se il wii solo 3 volte piu potente del gamecube ( sono delle valutazioni molto grossolane, anche perche ci diverse fonti che vedono il wii tra le 5 e le 6 volte piu potente del gamecube collocandolo ampiamente sopra un terzo ma non sopra la meta della potenza di una 360 ) sarebbe comunque largamente piu potente di una PS2 perche gia il cubo all’epoca era quasi 2 volte piu performante della PS2.La piega che i giochi sul wii sta prendendo appare cambiata e buona quindi non ci resta che attendere visti anche i nuovi hardprogetti che prossimamente vedremo sul wii. ciao a tutti ! PS. qualcuno ha smash brawl una buona connessione di rete ? se volete fare qualche sfida questa la mia chat

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  7. My daughter is a “Math Smart” … 1ox for this info! Great info, Betsy. And I’m glad they have “common sense”. As well as being book smart.[] Reply:February 21st, 2012 at 4:26 pmHi Sheree,Glad you enjoyed the Howard Gardner’s Intelligences. It’s amazing how everyone seems to fit in somewhere. Thanks for visiting Zen Mama!![]

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