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Stay boring, bankers – we know how this movie ends

John Sainsbury is professor emeritus of history at Brock University.

A message for Canada's bankers: Stay boring. Bad things happen when bankers become interesting or, heaven forbid, glamorous.

Consider the case of the Medicis. Pioneers of modern banking, they became Europe's richest family and the dominant faction in the Florentine Republic. But what wins them the plaudits of posterity raised envy among some of their contemporaries. In 1494, they were (temporarily) dislodged from power in a popular uprising.

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Jumping from the early modernity of renaissance Italy to the postmodernity of 21st-century Wall Street, we find bankers and their underlings again under scrutiny. Right now, their antics are entering popular consciousness through the medium of a movie, The Big Short.

Based on Michael Lewis's book, the film documents the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage market, which came perilously close to bringing down the world economy and precipitated a credit squeeze from which we have not yet recovered. The director is Adam McKay, best known for several Will Ferrell movies – an appropriate choice, given Wall Street's zaniness.

The film is an exercise in postmodernism. The narrative is fragmented and quirky. An explanation of a complex financial derivative is impeccably delivered by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath. The implied message is that establishing stable "value" in a financial maelstrom is impossible.

Yet there was a harsh reality behind the postmodern representation.

There were real victims, starting with the recipients of "predatory" mortgage loans that they had no hope of repaying. It was these loans, bundled into derivatives known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), that poisoned the entire financial system.

There are villains, notably Richard Fuld, the unrepentant boss of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, ruined by its addiction to those instruments. His grim visage flickers briefly during the movie's denouement.

Victims and bad guys, yes, but no heroes. The oddballs and hotshots who devised the credit default swap to short the market in mortgage bonds made the right call, and made huge sums. But heroes they were not.

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Apparently, though, they projected glamour. Mr. Lewis was dismayed to find that many university students read his revelations as how-to manuals. He cites the case of one undergraduate whose heart was set on becoming an oceanographer – until he was lured away by Wall Street's siren song.

The meltdown didn't spare the City of London. That was hardly surprising given the growth of Britain's financial-services sector after the "Big Bang" of deregulation in 1986. Wall Street and Threadneedle Street were two parts of one beast.

The story of the British financial crisis had a perfect villain in the person of Fred Goodwin. Under his aegis, the Royal Bank of Scotland went from non-entity to one of the world's largest banks, with declared "assets" exceeding the British gross domestic product. Unfortunately, these "assets" included an unhealthy chunk of CDOs.

RBS's collapse was even more spectacular than its rise, and Mr. Goodwin went from Scotland's answer to Cosimo de' Medici to reviled fraudster in a blink.

To many, the British banking system is a Manichean universe where the forces of evil have been allowed to run unchecked too long. Hence the large expectations surrounding the 2012 appointment of Mark Carney as governor of the Bank of England.

So far, he has played his role well in an understated, Canadian kind of way. He is successfully resisting the media's determination to inflict celebrity status on him. When a television interviewer suggested that he was the banking industry's answer to George Clooney, he responded modestly that the bar was low. Good answer. Stay strong, Mr. Carney. Stay boring.

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Meanwhile, how have the banks been faring back in Mr. Carney's native land? Canada couldn't avoid the 2008 financial crisis, but its banking system survived intact, largely because its chartered banks did the boringly prudent things well, such as retaining healthy Tier 1 capital ratios. Some dabbled in exotic derivatives, but there was no evidence of systemic malfeasance in Canada's system.

Yet, in some ways, the Canadian banks had already been saved from themselves.

In the mid-1980s, they showed an alarming desire to be interesting by jumping on the deregulation bandwagon. Fortunately, the collapse of the Edmonton-based Commercial Bank and, more spectacularly, of Olympia & York, enabled the federal government to shove that project to the backburner.

In 1998, Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal declared that they wanted to merge, as did Toronto-Dominion Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Proponents argued that these banking behemoths would be able to compete with the likes of Goldman Sachs in global capital markets.

Canadians, and Canadian bankers, should be eternally grateful that former prime minister Jean Chrétien and finance minister Paul Martin stymied that ill-conceived project.

So please, stay boring, Canadian bankers. A yardstick of success might be that no one will ever want to make a postmodern movie about you.

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