In what do we trust

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In what do we trust.

Who would have thought a movie about credit-default swaps and collaterised debt obligations would be a contender for best picture at this year's Oscars?

Sure, The Big Short featured Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale but even their star quality doesn't overcome the complexity of the subject matter or answer the fundamental question: who really wants to know about these things?

After watching the movie, I decided the answer is less about what these financial instruments are and more about who was affected by them.

Essentially, the movie shone a spotlight on big Wall Street banks that lost billions of dollars on deals they thought they were too smart to lose money on.

The movie was based on Michael Lewis' best-selling book which chronicled the build-up to the US housing bubble in 2007 and featured naysayers who predicted lending to sub-prime borrowers (people who couldn't afford it) would end very badly.

These few smart traders bet against the mortgages spurring the housing bubble and made an absolute fortune, at the expense of many of the brightest people on Wall Street working at firms like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

I wonder if part of the movie's appeal is that it feeds a current mood of distrust, anger and betrayal. For the most part, average people feel there is a gulf between them and banks and financial professionals, with the professionals always having the upper hand. This movie closes the gulf a little by showing the banks to be 'the dumb ones'.

Journalist Jeff Greenfield recently wrote a paper entitled In Nothing We Trust and noted Americans' trust in just about all their institutions has been in a long, almost unbroken decline.

Only 19 per cent of Americans trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time, down from 77 per cent in 1964. As for banks, trust has fallen from 60 per cent in 1979 to 28 per cent now. Big business, the medical system and education all get low grades and just 21 per cent of Americans polled profess faith in television news, less than half the percentage of 20 years ago.

There is arguably good reason for this mistrust. People have been betrayed by banks deemed too big to fail and by financial professionals who promised the earth and delivered nothing.

Yet we still trust - often for the wrong reasons. Research suggests as humans we are prone to trust in response to emotional cues, despite having been caught out time and again. Apparently it harks back 10,000 years to a time when we didn't have Google to check someone's credentials and background; we simply needed to rely on our instinct.

We use the most basic signals to choose where to place our trust — it can be tone of voice, appearance, good story-telling ability, and the opinion of others (if others trust this person, maybe I should too).

In The Big Short, the smart Wall Street guys exuded so much confidence that others followed suit, laughing at the less confident traders who posed a contrary argument.

In the months ahead, we will no doubt witness the circus leading up to the US election. We can be sure politicians will be elected on the basis of emotional factors and story-telling ability rather than a dispassionate analysis and verification of each politician's trustworthiness.

While a distrustful world is not a nice place to be, let's hope people retain enough scepticism to trust only those who deserve it.


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