As they say in the stock market, anti-Goldman sentiment hit a 52-week high last week. That's quite the remarkable development, given the amount of froth already built into the thing. Buried in the avalanche of populist screed was the news that the Hollywood Stock Exchange has been given the go-ahead to let investors use real dollars to bet on box-office results. Coincidental? We think not.
Wall Street, once the province of bankers actually seeking to finance real businesses that needed real money to make real things, has eaten its own tail. Thanks to derivative securities — about which there is nothing wrong in principle — the markets long ago lost any connection to their inspiration and have become justifications unto themselves. We’re not naïve — we know that any investment in an asset, whether it’s a house or a company, has always been a bet of some sort. But it used to be the asset that was the thing. Today, the thing is the bet itself. The asset is irrelevant.
There is no question that we as a people — fat cats on Wall Street included — are celebrity obsessed. But have we really come to the point where we will gamble on our obsession? We will actually wager on something so senseless as Jennifer Aniston's next showing at the box office? All this subprime stuff at least seemed to be some contorted bet on the health of the U.S. economy — be it a positive or a negative one. (Okay, really contorted, but you get the point.) Will we really bet on Kate Gosselin? Yes, we probably will. And Wall Street, not surprisingly, is making it happen.
Which brings us to the Hollywood Stock Exchange. Cantor Fitzgerald, the broker sponsoring the market, has argued that the exchange will offer a way for movie-industry "participants" to "create liquidity and hedge their daily business activities." But what it really is is another way to gamble on something you don't really have a stake in or influence on. (It's not like the people who trade in pork-belly futures raise the pigs.)
The Motion Picture Association of America tried to quash the market, calling it a "risky online-wagering service that would be detrimental to the motion-picture industry." They're worried that people might try to sabotage movies just to make a payoff shorting the release in the futures market. Given the bare-knuckle fighting during Oscar season, this is not necessarily an irrational concern. Actually, everything about the movie business is irrational and basically opaque, from the casting process to the accounting.
It's been said that no outsiders save Howard Hughes and Joe Kennedy ever made money in Hollywood. That's not exactly true, but Hollywood hustlers can certainly go toe-to-toe with their Wall Street counterparts. Just ask DLJ Merchant Banking, Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group, and Quadrangle. The four reportedly lost $1 billion on MGM, owner of the James Bond library. Hollywood is not a good bet, but it's a glamorous one.
So imagine, at least in theory, five years from now, picking up your iPad and reading about the movie Goldman financed for $100 million that was designed to fail. They may not be our most cultured citizens, but enough of them know the plot of The Producers. They’ll take the $100 million hit because they’re going to place a $1 billion bet against the movie on the Hollywood Stock Exchange. In which case — purely theoretical, of course — Goldman will win again. Which will surprise exactly no one.