I just saw “The China Hustle” as part of the Portland International Film Festival. It’s a very (very) slick documentary about the listing of fraudulent Chinese companies on US exchanges during the post-financial crisis era. The companies were mostly real, but their financial data were fictitious, although given the stamp of approval by the SEC, investment banks, specialty law firms and the big four accounting firms. The movie might be called “The Medium Size Short” because it centers on several market players that have righteously fought this upwards-of-$50 billion fraud by shorting it.
I think it does a great job of explaining the financial mechanisms at work (especially the short itself), and it holds your attention with lots of jump-cutting, extreme facial closeups, brightly lit à la Errol Morris, and the other techniques of zingy video journalism. It would make a great classroom enhancer in courses on finance or political economy, provided you’ve got a 90-minute block of time to spare.
I have two qualms with the content. First, it makes the case that the victims of this crime are the millions of small investors and pension-savers, people like you and me. And it’s true that many pension funds and ordinary folks were ripped off. But the real indictment is this: the financial sector has doubled its share of the economy, and its ballooning profits are a major contributor to the rise in inequality. What are we paying for? As this film clearly shows, we are definitely not buying better information or a more productive allocation of capital, at least not in the sectors of the market it shines its light on. On the contrary. We are being fleeced by sharp operators whose only reason for existence is that they can stash away their cut of the loot before anyone learns enough to stop them. That’s a pretty big lesson, in my book.
Also, the film ends by suggesting that the entire market capitalization of the major Chinese firms—they point to Alibaba in particular—may be fraudulent, and that we’re on the verge of another 2008-style market meltdown. I’m not a specialist in Chinese equities, so I won’t take a position on this. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is a lot of genuine economic growth going on in China, and some of it must be serving to support asset values. It is unlikely that the entire capitalization of Chinese firms will prove to be as flimsy as that of the smaller pseudo-firms exposed in the film. Of course, between full current market value and zero there’s a lot of potential space for unpleasant surprises.