6 December 2014 | don2507
A Caustic European View of High-Finance Capitalism
Le Capital follows the course of a newly-appointed CEO of a hypothetical major French bank with global reach. The protagonist is a smart, ambitious and hard-nosed executive, but the constant pressures he faces at the helm of Phenix Bank from his board, which didn't favor his taking command but feel they can control him, from his employees who are unclear as to the direction in which he wants to take Phenix Bank compared to his cancer-stricken predecessor, and most keenly from his shareholders, particularly a U.S.-located hedge fund, almost want to make you sympathize with him. But his ruthless, hard character and the cold but correct way he treats his family ultimately prevents this identification. (I've read that the actor portraying the CEO is a comedian on French television so this must be quite a switch for him.)
The heart of the film is the pressure that the American hedge fund, as represented by a character who would put Gordon Ghecko to shame, places on the CEO to initiate drastic actions to pump the stock price. Apparently, the hedge fund has acquired a dominant position in Phenix's stock that enables it to virtually dictate policy to the bank, or at least to this CEO. Of course the dictation is smoothed by the fact that he's promised huge bonuses to implement these "suggestions". The initial directive is to fire 10,000 of the bank's employees which he does gratified by the promised bonus and seemingly unconcerned by the fact that "his" bank does not appear to have an excess labor force. The final "directive" is for Phenix Bank to make an acquisition of a troubled Japanese bank with poor assets. At last some resistance begins to form in our CEO because he senses he'll be the "fall guy" for such an ill-advised acquisition and that the adverse impact of such an acquisition on Phenix's stock price would apparently enable the hedge fund to acquire complete control of the bank at a cheaper price. (One could nitpick and say that the filmmakers in their anti-capitalist bias are confusing corporate raiders who do hostile takeovers with hedge funds who are content to be "activist" investors and prod the company's management and not manage the company. Moreover, why would the hedge fund want to manage the troubled assets of the Japanese bank as part of the larger Phenix Bank, particularly if they were acquired with cash most likely burdening Phenix Bank with much increased debt? A stock-for-stock exchange might affect the target bank's shareholders with a lower value for their stock.) What the CEO ultimately does about the Japanese bank and his erstwhile hedge fund friends I'll leave for those who choose to view this film. I, for one, enjoyed it. I found the banking scenes to be interesting and the characterizations to be provocative although in some cases over the top. For non-French speakers like this English speaker, I think you'll need to go back a bit a number of times on a DVD to refresh the sub-titles in order to follow the financial ramifications of the plot.
The filmmakers' attitude toward high-finance capitalism is most apparent in an amusing but over-the-top scene where our banking CEO says in an opulent boardroom among well-dressed board members that our new paradigm is to "rob from the poor and give to the rich" to which he's met with enthusiastic applause. I'm sure the vast majority of bankers don't believe this or follow this goal explicitly; however, their actions may sometimes indeed perform this transfer of wealth, e.g., the LIBOR interest rate manipulation which served to enrich banks and their usually wealthy shareholders (but also including 401k holders) but increased the cost to homeowners with variable-rate mortgages. I would guess the basic question underlying films like "Capital" is whether economic systems like capitalism promote the kind of greed and exploitation we see in "Capital" or whether greed-filled and exploitative people perform their misery in any kind of system (for you socialists out there, socialism did not really end greed and exploitation; it was just manifested in another form, the form of political power and perks). Perhaps the filmmakers' message is that financial capitalism allows monetary greed to be more fully realized.