All posts by brendoncrossing

The big long blog on The Big Short

The global financial crisis was a caused by several intricate, complex and interconnected factors. Many people believe these issues to be either too complicated or too boring to try and comprehend. However, there are dedicated communicators who have sought to convey the economic crash in a tangible and informative way that appeals to broad audiences. When exploring how these people approach their task of informing various publics about financial matters, it is important understand that both the professionals and the communicators working in the field must adhere to a very simple, yet profound principle; transparency.

Throughout and beyond the global financial crisis, the economic world has frequently been riddled with misconduct. However, time and time again, those who seek to cheat the system are continually caught out, often watching their empires crumble beneath them. This high standard of integrity is also imposed on those in communicative roles. Attempting to share difficult concepts commonly requires the simplification of the relevant information, however it is vital to ensure that the message is always open, honest and complete. This not only benefits the audience, but also follows the best interests of those inside the organisation. With not only incomprehensible amounts of money at stake, this close relationship between finance and communications has to be balanced appropriately.

There are many various ways that finance is communicated. One of the most prominent avenues is through entertainment media. Numerous movies and documentaries have followed economic storylines, with many being based around reality. These films often focus on times of crisis or scandal, as they create compelling plots, and it’s interesting to note how the directors of these works frame the issues. People naturally crave narrative. A neat beginning and end, with complications, and satisfying resolutions. “Essentially, stories do more than simply organize events; they impose an interpretive structure on events that is designed to satisfy these criteria – namely, elucidating a structure of purposiveness, justifying one’s questionable actions, maintaining a belief in one’s efficacy, and bolstering self-worth.” (Baumeister & Newman 1994, p. 688). These films do not end unresolved. They follow the characters’ lives either highlighting the rise of the righteous, or the demise of those who ‘cheat’.

A recent film, ‘The Big Short’, seeks to portray the juxtaposition of this simultaneous rise and fall. It follows a group of investment bankers, as they realise the nature of the hidden, but imminent housing market collapse.

Based on the true stories from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, the obscure dramatic comedy tackles some technical financial concepts, yet director Adam McKay handled the risks associated with such a technicality-rich project and “makes this story completely accessible to everybody. You don’t have to be an expert in economics”. Instead of simply wading through the dull details, on several occasions, the movie acknowledges these complexities, brakes the fourth wall, and inserts high-profile cameos to avoid losing the audience’s attention. These cutaways make it clear that direct messages are an effective, yet undervalued tool in financial communication. They enable the audience to be included, despite the quick pace of jargon-filled scenes in the film. “Mortgage-backed securities, sub-prime loans, tranches, it’s pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored, or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone. So, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain.” (The Big Short 2015).

However, the real difficulty of the movie was not conveying the theory of banking. McKay wanted to push well beyond that. The Big Short is a movie which greatly challenges the audience to consider the fraudulent greed of America’s big bankers, while reflecting on the events of the largest economic collapse since the great depression “which have arguably never been properly processed despite their corrosive effects on our politics and culture and psychology. And that ultimately this experience will lead to some kind of reckoning that causes us to face uncomfortable truths about responsibility and financial capitalism and our entire way of life.” (Pressler 2015).

There are, conversely, some criticisms of the film. Simplifying such complex situations leaves gaps for information that some regard as important, or necessary to include. The film focusses the blame of the collapse mainly on the private sector, while skipping over the effect that years of previous government fiscal policy had across many international sectors. Unfortunately, there is “only so much you can do” in a two-hour movie, McKay says. “I’d love it if this movie gave a kick in the pants to the conversation about the economy and finance, the collapse, and regulation, and made people a little less intimidated by the subject.” (Ip 2015). Ultimately, the key point that the entire movie drives home can be summarised by one line delivered by Steve Carell’s character Mark Baum “Fraud has never ever worked. Eventually things go south. When the hell did we forget all that?” 

Beyond the cinematic world, there is a realm of pseudo-financial entertainment television, where investment pundit juggernauts battle for viewership, ratings and advertisement deals. One of the most prominent shows of this description is Jim Cramer’s ‘Mad Money’. The hour-long nightly program, which has been running since 2005, features the eccentric host’s daily market recommendations, accompanied with sound effects, props and boisterous rants. While this very direct and straight forward framing of the stock market is clearly attractive, consistently drawing in more than 300,000 viewers each night, many criticise its oversimplification, deeming it as nothing more than a guilty pleasure for those in the industry, targeting the naïve laymen outsiders (Karniouchina, Moore & Cooney 2009, p. 245).

Although this show in particular is aimed at those with little to no actual financial knowledge, the investments that are featured do tend to show some positive growth when given ‘buy’ recommendations. This show can even be examined similarly to marketing and advertising campaigns, with “traditional advertising variables, such as message length, information clutter, and source credibility, influencing the size of the market reaction.” (Karniouchina, Moore & Cooney 2009, p. 244).

Since the early 1970s, there has been an increased focus on financial journalism as a discipline. Prior to this, the prominent view was that “Finance has always had its own, specialised culture. A world of ‘long-established firms…personal relationships built on trust’ and exuding ‘solidity, permanence and discreet luxury’, it was not a part of everyone’s every day and it was not assumed many people – beyond those already ‘in the know’ – would be interested in it.” (Greenfield, Williams & Beadnell 2003). Although the economic world has become more accessible in this time, decades later, the underlying theme still remain, as demonstrated in ‘The Big Short’. This growth in commercial reporting, despite never fully penetrating into our daily lives, has generated a sustained and immense response from markets of varying scale.

While large audiences are attracted to the projects of major networks and high-budget cinematography, the impact of small, local media on financial markets is often overlooked. In their study, Engelberg & Parsons (2011) find that seemingly insignificant factors, such as the lack of distribution of a local newspaper, caused by adverse weather conditions, or the time zone that a city is in can effect and disrupt trading patterns. On a larger scale, global markets can be categorised into two groups, developed and emerging markets. Although news media in developed economies is far more saturated, with countless reports featuring daily, the response from investors indicates that this information is far more valued than the stories presented in the emerging economies. “This is surprising given that with less news coverage, one might think that emerging market news events should be particularly important.” (Griffin, Hirschey & Kelly 2011, p. 3988). This is shown by Griffin, Hirschey & Kelly (2011) to be mainly a result of the prevalence of illegal insider trading and the low quality of reporting conducted in these emerging markets. Exploring the subtle psychology behind investment decisions reinforces this notion that following a practice of direct, clear and transparent communication should always be preferred in this field, as “financial markets may be less about the actuality of economic facts than about how information is perceived and interpreted by market participants.” (Oberlechner & Hocking 2004, p. 422). As mentioned in Oberlechner & Hocking’s article, technological advances continue to drive the speed and breadth of commercial reporting, and this has caused market participants to look further into the future for their competitive edge, relying more and more on the speculation and rumours perpetuated by the business media.

While it’s clear that these journalists do have an impact on their audiences, and in turn the financial markets, the most significant issue becomes their burden of responsibility; especially when reporting in times of crisis. In the period following the 2008 global financial crisis, there has been focussed questioning of whether they were adequately acting as a watchdog for consumer interests. For example, in a radio interview, Richard Aedy (2008) asks “Why did this happen? Why wasn’t the real digging taking on the powerful institutions at the time when they were behaving most egregiously? Why wasn’t that happening? Because that’s the stuff that people get into journalism to do, surely?” Unfortunately, there were three significant factors which underscored this inability to serve the public. Government deregulation in the financial sector meant that journalists lacked the supportive legal backing to challenge big banks. Secondly, the struggling media climate meant that journalists were lacking confidence and a sense of aggression. Leading up to 2008, The Wall Street Journal alone had undergone four rounds of worker lay-offs. This resulted in what Dean Starkman describes as the decisive factor; journalists had a heightened aversion to risk throughout their reporting (Aedy 2008). “Interviews with financial journalists reveal a practice whereby journalists [were] too close to their business and finance sources. They [saw] their role as informing them, rather than informing and educating the public in a watchdog role.” (Knowles, Phillips & Lidberg 2014, p. 59). This has shown how the role of financial journalism as a watchdog for the general public was and is diminishing (Knowles 2013, p.346)

As argued by Clark, Thrift & Tickell (2004), finance reporting has transformed into a media event that is now regarded as a ‘performance’. It is difficult, then, to distinguish an appropriate level of professionalism and expertise in this context. While influential reporters such as Jim Cramer are rightly seen as knowledgeable personalities, it can be difficult to determine the extent of understanding to which all journalists in the field should be held accountable. It is also challenging for these figures to find the critical balance between simplification and pandering to an audience. Jon Stewart challenges Jim Cramer on this issue saying “I can’t reconcile the brilliance and knowledge that you have of the intricacies of the market, with the crazy bullshit I see you do every night.” Cramer himself concedes “There’s a market for it, and you give it to them.” Unfortunately, when journalists make mistakes in this field, whether intentional or not, they can be “disingenuous at best, and criminal at worst.”

After the global financial crisis, it was not only the economy that took a major hit. The financial communications industry was exposed as being thoroughly lacking, disreputable, and at times, arguably criminal. For journalists, among other economic communicators, it is essential to reflect on the widespread mistakes of the recent past, in order to progress towards a consistently valuable and trusted source of much-needed information. As shown throughout these examples, the most reliable way to ensure a message is communicated effectively, is to strive for transparency. This necessity applies to any and all audiences within the field, whether they are comprised of naïve laymen, or seasoned investment experts. While this may involve leaving some elements of a story out, in order to simplify the concepts, nothing should ever be actively hidden. Many of the principles that guide successful financial practices are directly applicable to communicating the complexities of the economic system, and this correlation between disciplines serves a fundamental aspect of business culture.

 

 

And with that, “I am going to try to find moral redemption, at the roulette table.”

Rouelette

 

References:

Aedy, R 2012, The responsibility of finance reporters – a case study of the origins of the GFC, ABC Radio National, viewed 4 May 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/mediareport/american-finance-reporters2c-subrime-mortgages-and-the-gfc/4100494&gt;.

Baumeister, RF, Newman, LS 1994, ‘How stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: Motives that Shape Autobiographical Narratives’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 6, pp. 676-690.

Clark, G, Thrift, N & Tickell, A 2004, ‘Performing Finance: The Industry, the Media and Its Image’, Review of International Political Economy, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 289-310.

Engelberg J, & Parsons, C, 2011, ‘The Causal Impact of Media in Financial Markets’, The Journal of Finance, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 67-97.

Greenfield, C, Williams, P & Beadnell, C 2003, ‘The Rise and Rise of Journalism Pertaining to Finance’, in Australian Media Traditions Conference, RMIT Publishing, Melbourne, 13-14 November, viewed 4 May 2016, <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=818849647850495;res=IELHSS&gt;.

Griffin J, Hirschey, N & Kelly, P 2011, ‘How Important Is the Financial Media in Global Markets?’, The Review of Financial Studies, vol. 24, no. 12, pp. 3941-3992.

Ip, G 2015, What the ‘Big Short’ Movie Gets Right—and Wrong—About the Financial Crisis, Wall Street Journal, viewed 15 April 2016, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-the-big-short-movie-gets-rightand-wrongabout-the-financial-crisis-1449843231&gt;.

Karniouchina, E, Moore, W & Cooney, K 2009, ‘Impact of Mad Money Stock Recommendations: Merging Financial and Marketing Perspectives’, Journal of Marketing, vol. 73, no. 6, pp. 244-266.

Knowles, S 2013, ‘Financial Journalism through Financial Crises: The Reporting of Three Boom and Bust Periods’, PhD thesis, Murdoch University, Perth.

Knowles, S, Phillips, G, Lidberg, J 2013, ‘The framing of the global financial crisis 2005-2008: A cross-country comparison of the US, UK and Australia’, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 59-72.

Oberlechner, T & Hocking, S 2004, ‘Information sources, news, and rumors in financial markets: Insights into the foreign exchange market’, Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 407-424.

Pressler, J 2015, The Ultimate Feel-Furious Movie About Wall Street, Vulture, viewed 18 May 2016, <http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/the-big-short-c-v-r.html&gt;.

Tetlock, P 2007, ‘Giving Content to Investor Sentiment: The Role of Media in the Stock Market’, The Journal of Finance, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 1139–1168.

The Big Short 2015, film, Paramount Pictures, Hollywood CA, directed by Adam McKay.

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I Never Knew I was a Techno Fan

I like numbers. I like the objectivity, malleability and simplicity that numbers offer. The fact that I’m writing this blog indicates that I’m a communication and media studies student, but what you may not know is that I’m also studying finance and accounting. I do this because I’ve always had this interest in how numbers can work for you.

Any book, from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ or ‘The Bible’, to ‘Spot Goes to the Beach’, even this blog, can be broken down to just twenty six symbols. Anything that’s ever been seen on a computer screen is comprised of a series of ones and zeros (including this YouTube reading of Spot Goes to the Beach). It’s no surprise then, that numbers can be used to represent much larger ideas.

Last year, I delivered pizza to houses more than a thousand times. Dominos now tracks each delivery I make, and can analyse this data to benefit their business. Andy Rubin, the co-founder of Android has recently announced his desire to give free dashcams to consumers in exchange for the data they collect. Data has value, and is a commodity that can be bought. Neither Dominos, nor Rubin would make such investments, if there wasn’t significant value in the information they receive. However, data is useless without analysing it. You have to able to make something meaningful out of the numbers. While the analysis of data can be, and is becoming a more automated process, there is still a very human task of tempting valuable insights out of data.

So on one side of this data-driven economy are the companies who gather and use massive amounts of information to understand their markets. However, the pursuit of quantifying everyday activity not only interests big business, but also appeals to consumers. This is clearly demonstrated through the rising popularity of wearable technology such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit. This innovation has helped people to reach new fitness goals, while also tracking their diet and sleeping patterns. Many different applications analyse this data, and the consumers can then gain insights into their lives. One alternative idea comes from Laura Peill, who has stopped running with her fitness tracker. She argues that this technology can make us lose the simplicity and importance of just running and listening to our bodies.

As someone who loves to look into this kind of data, I have been weighing up my options as a consumer. While looking for a watch to buy, I brought my options down to two, very different products. One, a classic analogue wristwatch that simply tells the time. The other, an Apple watch that offers so much more to the wearer. The debate for me, is that I believe it makes a statement to myself of what values I want to uphold. It’s a choice between purely being more conscious of how I use my time, or whether I want to continue a push towards quantifying everything I do.

Beyond this decision, I feel that it raises an awareness of how dependant I am on technology. In the past week, I experienced the exact situation outlined in the first 30 seconds of this clip.

Luckily for me, I had my iPad on standby. I have some thinking to do.

To Suffer With

I’ve never really found Jack Black that funny. At times, I can appreciate his charm, but he’s always over-acting (just a matter of opinion). I’ve never seen a genuine side of Jack Black. Until now.

”I don’t think I can take you home.” This sentence was genuine. It was fearful, it was awkward, and it was heart-breaking. A homeless child reaching out to a millionaire for help, only to be told there’s nothing that can be done. Now, you only need to look into the comments on that page to see that there have been a number of wildly varying reactions to this video.

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However, I don’t think that he’s done anything wrong here. He went over with the purpose of getting others to think about stories just like Felix’s. He immersed himself in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable environment, and was able to experience something beyond the regularity of his life.

Much like Jack Black, a minority of unfortunate people find me funny, and I’ve also been to a developing country to gain a first-hand understanding of extreme poverty. When I visited Indonesia at the beginning of 2014, I had an incredible time meeting some people that regardless of how little they had, were truly content. I discovered that even the smallest amount of generosity, from giving boxes of food and supplies to those in need, to just gifting a few soccer balls to local children was able to create a lot of joy.

IMG_4836

 

Now, despite seeing some difficult things while in these areas, I never felt that it was my responsibility, or purpose to take those who were suffering and bring them home. Nor do I think that is a burden that should be placed on Jack Black. As he says, it’s about giving “as much as you think you can.”

As so much time, effort, and money is given towards helping people in extreme poverty, it is important to ensure that those resources are being used in the most effective way. Gary Haugen challenges his audience, giving a new goal to charity.

In the developing world, “most poor people live outside the protection of the law”, leading to a high rate of violent crime. While many anti-poverty programs offer great resources, many people simply can’t access them due to this violence. Luckily for them, those who are rich enough don’t need public law enforcement, because they can just buy their protection. This has led private security forces in the developing world to be up to seven times greater than the public police force in those areas. Improving the law enforcement system in the developing world is a monumental, difficult task, and this means it is often ignored. Even in our first world countries, law enforcement is not perfect by any stretch. This problem requires a shift in how we think about overcoming poverty. Ultimately however, tackling any issue like this relies on the fundamental human value of compassion. Give what you think you can, do what you think you can.

Compassion

It Is Absolutely Essential That You Continue

Seventy years on, the Nazi regime remains a chilling memory, even to those born decades after the fact. The atrocities committed in this time could not have been achieved without a large mass of people power behind them. This raises the question of how so many individuals were able to overcome fundamental moral principles. Were they all depraved and inhuman? How could ordinary people carry out such brutality? These are questions that social psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to answer in one of the most ethically controversial experiments ever devised.

When presented with a hypothetical moral dilemma, we can often say “This is the right thing to do. I would do the right thing.” But people are complicated. Situations are complicated. Research experiments can give us an insight into how people really do act in these complex situations. But should it? Before an experiment can begin, the participants must sign an Informed Consent Form which outlines exactly what will happen in throughout the experiment. Anything that isn’t outlined in this form is known as deception, which can be permissible in certain situations. If the value of the experiment is dependent on the participant’s lack of knowledge, the deception doesn’t cause any physical or emotional distress, and the participant is informed of this deception at the earliest possible time, it can be ethically acceptable.

There are three main arguments against the ethical procedures in Milgram’s experiment:

  1. The use of deception – Milgram justified with its necessity for accurate results.
  2. Harm caused to the participants – Milgram argued that this was only short-term stress caused during the experiment. He had also not anticipated this high level of stress. Once this effect became apparent to him, he investigated for potential harm. After the experiment, each participant received a questionnaire regarding their participation. These were the results:Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 5.35.42 amOne year after the experiment, 40 participants were psychiatrically examined, and none were found to have sustained any harm.
  3. Right to withdraw – Some argue that participants were not given the opportunity to withdraw from the experiment, as they were prompted on multiple occasions to continue. Milgram argues that the nature of the obedience study required this prompting, and that despite the prompting, it was still possible to withdraw (as 35% of participants did).

Ultimately the concept of ethics is about right and wrong, which is subjective. Thankfully there are many organisations around the world that govern ethics in research, in order to maintain research conducted responsibly and with integrity. Milgram’s study, while justifiable, does raise important questions about ethical research practices. In the past, many morally questionable studies have been completed. While the data from these experiments can sometimes reveal fascinating information, this comes at a cost. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Hide Yo’ Kids, Hide Yo’ Wife

Science communication is important. It allows people to learn what’s going on within the scientific community, and (when done correctly) is a great tool for getting people excited about work that’s being done. SciShow is a YouTube channel which focusses on keeping people up to date with news and concepts of important or interesting scientific stories.

This video, titled ‘The Science of Anti-Vaccination’ goes into detail regarding the psychological and scientific reasoning behind the decisions some parents are making to not have their children vaccinated. It is intended as an educational commentary answering why this decline in immunisation rates is occurring.

The authors of this text are a group of scientific communicators and researchers. The host of the show, Hank Green, has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s in environmental studies, and has been a prominent YouTube personality since 2007. Throughout the video, he uses the personal pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ to refer to the authors of the text, members of the scientific community, and tScreen Shot 2015-04-18 at 10.06.13 pmhe audience. This not only creates a greater sense of the authors’ presence in the text (to a greater extent than the author’s literal presence in the text), but it also helps align the audience’s views with the views they are presenting.

Speaking of audience (see how smooth that was?), this video is on YouTube, so it’s open to a huge variety of people. The fast-paced nature of the video, along with the intended audience for their other posts, and the platform that it’s posted to tends towards young adults and teenagers who have a general interest in science, or the vaccination debate. One strength that the text has, is that it communicates the complexity of the science on different levels (like in Shakespeare, Monty Python, or Harry Potter), so it can be appreciated by both science noobs and PhD candidates.

Rather than simply criticising the people that make the choice not to vaccinate their kids, the authors try to objectively discuss the logic (albeit wrong) behind these people’s choice. “We at SciShow aren’t about judgement, we’re about science and using it to better understand the world.” The authors clearly state where they stand in the ‘debate’ throughout the video, but remain objective despite this. Instead of ridiculing the people who they disagree with, they use examples of common human biases, to show the normality of these peoples’ mistakes, and to create the chance for their audience to empathise with them.

As the episode is a video summarising the scientific and psychological phenomenon surrounding the issue, it relies solely on the previous research of others. While they don’t directly reference their sources during the video, they draw attention to where they got their information, and link the locations at the end. I don’t believe this is because they cherry-pick the data that supports them (as there are more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles that support their views, and no evidence against them), I simply think this is done to keep the flow of the text, given that it’s a video.

This text is a very valuable, effective and reliable example of scientific communication. It promotes not only an understanding of the scientific concepts involved, but by giving a detailed analysis of the opposing view, encourages a fair and meaningful discussion among its audience.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

There are some terrible people in this world. Seriously, some people are just really mean. The internet is a wonderful place full of rainbows and unicorns, where people can be themselves. Unfortunately when the internet’s freedom to be yourself collides with the fact that some people suck, a Pandora’s Box of hateful, misogynistic, racist, bigoted, homophobic, trolling smut is opened.

A big question at the moment is whether this type of discrimination should be legal. Is freedom of speech an inalienable right, or would consequence beget change? Words can be used eloquently, and being articulate helps to convey the right message, which is why the alteration of a few words in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act could result in a very different outcome for Australians.

Freedom of information is also very important when it comes to the internet. Currently, all websites are delivered at the same speed, regardless of the content. Internet service providers can’t decide what information deserves to be seen more than any other; whether it’s sexist, hateful comments or a video of a bunny eating raspberries.

This concept is known as net neutrality, and is vital in order to preserve freedom across the internet. Net neutrality isn’t just about keeping Netflix fast, it has real implications for the future of thought. To ensure the internet retains one of its fundamental principles and strengths, we need to be constantly aware of the current events associated with the cause, and willing to fight for free information.

“The best counter to a bad argument is a good one, and the best antidote to bigotry is decency, proclaimed by people engaging in a free and fair debate.” –  Tony Abbott

 

 

 

 

Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Butterfly

‘Young people are the future’

It’s been said before, and yes, it is relevant and true; but what are young people doing with their lives? Maybe we just don’t know how lucky we are.

BREAKING NEWS! – Things are happening in the world, and these things need our attention. Unfortunately young people are often defined as lazy, utterly self absorbed – it goes on and on. Contrary to this popular belief, if you look hard enough, you can find youth instigating positive change.  From Occupy Wall Street, to Kony 2012, youth around the world are collaborating, using social media, to make a difference. This support for good causes is nice, but there’s a phenomenon occurring known as slacktivism. This is “the way of the new style activist who just signs online petitions and shares on Facebook, instead of the banner waving, old fashioned street style, brawling with coppers activist days.” The actual benefit of a lot of internet hype isn’t all that helpful with no action to follow.

Slacktivism

We lazy, apathetic young people need to make an actual stand for what is important in this world; we need action now.