Arbitrage: Actually, it was Fraud

I continue scanning the cinema for new films about private sector managers, to be analyzed in the book I’m writing or discussed in my course on narratives. There have been more than a few inspired by the economic crisis, the most compelling of which is Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job. The latest to hit the screens is the drama Arbitrage, the screenplay and directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki.

The title Arbitrage is misleading. Arbitrage involves taking advantage of price differences that exist in two or more markets to strike profitable deals. Economists generally approve of arbitrage, because arbitrageurs’ trades will eliminate those inefficient price differentials. The key character in Jarecki’s Arbitrage, hedge fund manager Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere) is however a fraudster, pure and simple. He has secretly invested $400 million of his firm’s assets in a Russian copper mining venture that he says is immensely profitable, but he cannot get any of his money out. Attempting to sell his firm, he borrows $400 million from a fellow hedgie to temporarily plug this hole in his balance sheet. He has a potential buyer, but to consummate the deal he must mislead both the buyer and the regulators. On the personal level, behind the façade of a happy marriage – his wife Ellen, is played by Susan Sarandon – he has a mistress, a young French art dealer for whom he provides an tony apartment.

The precipitating event: Miller escapes his sixtieth birthday party at home to visit his mistress and then takes her on a late-night drive. Tired from his hot sexual encounter, he rolls his Mercedes, killing her and injuring himself, visibly but not seriously. Miller embarks on an instant cover-up, calling in a favor to help him escape the accident scene and, when an NYPD detective begins an investigation, Miller denies any involvement in the accident. So Miller’s criminal fraud accompanies his commercial fraud.

Miller is yet another exemplar of the corrupt financier, a well-known character in financial fables. As played by Gere, he is handsome, charming, smooth, and determined. But he lacks the near-frenetic energy, ambition, and bombast of Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, still the paradigm of this character. Miller is attempting to liquidate his firm for a mere half-billion to have a more quiet life – a lack of ambition that pales in comparison to the grandiosity of Gekko’s greed. We can’t imagine Miller giving a “greed is good” speech, because he is a much more shadowy and private character. I don’t think Miller will resonate with audiences the way Gekko did, and the movie stands or falls on how Miller is regarded.

Miller ultimately succeeds in selling his firm to another hedgie, played by the assuredly uncharismatic if not downright unattractive Graydon Carter, definitely a face made for radio. Miller’s criminal fraud is another matter. Much of the movie deals with the investigation of the accident. Miller beats the first rap, as his clever legal counsel has the charges against the accomplice who spirited him away from the scene of the accident withdrawn. Miller faces a more serious challenge in that his wife, who is well aware of Miller’s philandering, especially on the evening in question, presents him with a one-sided separation agreement, and threatens that if he will not sign, she will go to the police to destroy his alibi.

The movie ends without showing how Miller will respond to this dilemma. In terms of the four organizational fables I often discuss in this blog, Arbitrage presents itself as an example of the ironic fable, in which the protagonist Miller enriches himself at the expense of the purchaser of his firm and indulges himself to the disgrace of his family. The movie’s ending raises the possibility of it being an instance of the retributive fable in that, if Ellen Miller stays firm in her resolve, Robert Miller will end up either in jail, or a free man, but without his millions. Either way, he will be brought to justice and the moral order restored.

My initial judgment, on first viewing Arbitrage is that I will mention it in Enterprising Fables, the book on private sector narratives, as one narrative instantiating the rogue financier genre. But it is unlikely that I would use it in class. The financial chicanery is not particularly complex or enlightening, so students learn little about the financial sector. Miller is far from the most compelling of the rogues. And too much of the story revolves around his attempt to conceal the tragic consequences of his marital infidelity.

 

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