Oct 10, 2010
Too many greedy people in the world?
If you believe Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, then it seems anything goes as long as money is made
Watching the blockbuster sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps last week brought back a flood of memories.
In particular, it reminded me of the furious debate which was triggered here more than two decades ago by the original movie's lead character Gordon Gekko's memorable comment that greed is good.
At a seminar then conducted for pre-university students here, Mr Robert Ng, chairman of one of Hong Kong's largest property developers, raised eyebrows when he observed: 'Greed is not evil. Greed oils the wheels of commerce. Greed gives you the will and motivation to succeed.'
He also asked: 'Can you imagine what the world would be like today if people were not motivated by greed, ambition or power?'
Although he subsequently backtracked and said his remarks were taken slightly out of context and that he did not endorse greed as a positive trait, it sparked off a huge outcry.
Yet, despite the movie's depiction of the corrosive effects of greed on the financial sector, it had exerted an almost hypnotic spell on a whole generation of bank officers and traders. For all the moralising themes about the evils of greed which were prevalent in the movie, it was also a vivid portrayal of how money could be a ticket to riches for the smart and ambitious who had no moral qualms about the way they went about making money.
About 23 years have passed since Wall Street was first screened. In that span of time, the winds of change have transformed the financial landscape both here and globally beyond recognition.
A chilling reminder of how much the world has moved on comes early in the sequel when Gekko is given back his old mobile phone as he leaves prison after serving time for securities-related fraud. It is the size of a brick. It is a reflection of how much life has changed in the past two decades, as we leapt from bulky mobile phones to slick technological gizmos like the iPhone and iPad.
The theme of the original movie was simple enough: a ruthless swashbuckling corporate raider making use of a naive young trader to get hold of inside information to try to gain control of an airline.
And like all great films depicting the triumph of good over evil eventually, Gekko is caught and punished for his crimes, with the sequel's opening scene depicting him as a much chastened man, unshaven, unkempt with no family, colleagues or friends to greet him as he steps out of jail.
But it is another memorable quote in the sequel that caught my attention. 'Greed is legal,' he tells a rapt audience of college students as he promotes his book Is Greed Good?
While this quote may not be as catchy as the original comment which has reverberated down the years, it nevertheless sums up the ills afflicting the global financial sector. Indeed, if Gekko's prognosis is right, greed has become so entrenched in the system that what would have been regarded as abhorrent behaviour 20 years ago may now be considered an acceptable norm.
By coincidence, while Money Never Sleeps was being screened here, Jerome Kerviel, a former trader of French bank Societe Generale, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for taking 50 billion euros (S$91 billion) in bets without authorisation from his bank.
While the bets came up to more than what his bank was worth and nearly caused it to go under, Kerviel's defenders argued his strategy reflected the trading spirit of the bubble times we now live in. Had he stopped while he was ahead, he would have made 1.5 billion euros and been lionised as a hero in his bank, they added.
It gives a new twist to the stench on greed - that anything is acceptable so long as it makes money.
But if you think that such aberrations are confined only to developed markets like Europe and the United States, you are sadly mistaken.
Last year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore slapped a temporary ban on 10 financial institutions from selling complicated financial investment products, following seven months of investigations.
This was in the wake of losses suffered by about 9,900 people who had lost most or all of their investments, worth $520 million, on structured notes like Lehman Minibonds, which turned sour when US investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008.
Some of these investors had bought the toxic derivatives products in the mistaken belief that they were putting their money into top-grade investment bonds.
But while those of us who can recall simpler times - when it was fairly clear-cut what was right and what was wrong - may find unbridled greed very distasteful, we cannot help getting the impression that the tide is inexorable.
In the sequel, Money Never Sleeps, the makers hold out the hope that man's better nature will eventually prevail, with Gekko returning the US$100 million he had stolen from his daughter, after learning he is about to become a grandfather.
But during the furious debate on greed all those many years ago, then Trade and Industry Minister S.Dhanabalan offered another perspective on what could motivate people, other than greed.
He said: 'Greed has the connotation that you just want to amass money and it seems that the motive is, I think, a very suspect motive.'
His advice to young people was to emulate great entrepreneurs like Henry Ford who were motivated by the drive to see their ideas succeed.
People whose motive is to make more money do succeed, but their success is not long-lasting and they do not leave a lasting mark, he said.