Film Review: Money for Nothing
The documentary film Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve is a critical evaluation of the policies pursued by the US Federal Reserve over the years.
Released in the United States in 2013 and set amid the context of the global financial crisis, it explores what has become a rather familiar paradox: more debt is both the problem and the solution in pursuing economic growth.
The film is written, produced, and directed by Jim Bruce whose “short trades in 2007 and 2008 helped finance a significant portion of the documentary’s budget,” according to the film’s website.
The phrase “money for nothing” gives a clue to the film’s content, echoing the title of a 1985 song by the British rock band Dire Straits. The song refers to the excesses associated with the rock star lifestyle, the kind of excesses now associated with the lifestyle of high financiers, whom the media often call “the bankers.” If the bankers rock and roll with leverage and speculation, leaving generations of Americans to face the (proverbial) music, the responsibility largely lies with the Fed. Why? According to the documentary, the Fed has fed the bankers on limitless money at near zero interest rate. That is, money for nothing.
Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the film.
- The film features interviews with a number of well-known figures from the Fed as well as economists, investors, and commentators. These include members, both past and present, of the Fed’s Board of Governors, among them Paul Volcker and Janet Yellen, and renowned investors and thought leaders like Jim Grant and Jeremy Grantham. This mix of commentary from insiders and reputable outside analysts brings credibility to the film.
- It has educational value for those interested in central banking. As someone engaged in financial education, I found it rather pleasing that in a few places the film felt like an online course when explaining terms like “monetary expansion” and “Greenspan put.”
- Its production standard is what you would expect from a well-made documentary film. Its entertaining use of clips from movies and even cartoons is reminiscent of the technique of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. With a run time of 104 minutes, it is not a short documentary, but it does a reasonable job of retaining viewers’ attention.
- The film is about a specific diagnosis of and cure for the Fed. The diagnosis is that the Fed’s poorly thought out policies are responsible for causing repeated boom and bust cycles in the US economy, worsening economic inequality in favor of “the bankers.” The cure is that the Fed should focus on low inflation and stable growth. It is not an analysis of what has been right and wrong with the Fed’s policies in general, which could have made it more informative and objective.
- Money for Nothing at times becomes too focused on personalities, particularly the two that it seems most harshly critical of: Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. Neither former Fed chair nor their supporters appear in the film to offer a counterpoint. It would have been more helpful if the film devoted more time to the ideologies and the politics that influence Fed policies because, while the faces may change, the policies often remain the same.
- The film is exceedingly US-centric even though the Fed’s policies affect economies and people throughout the world. Most, if not all, of the featured commentators are also from the United States and examine the the country from within. It’s as if what observers in other nations think of the Fed’s policies does not matter.
Money for Nothing is a relatively new addition to a growing number of finance documentaries, particularly those that have come out since the global financial crisis. While it has its strengths, I find it lagging behind some of the more popular finance documentaries, such as Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story, in effectively communicating an in-depth analysis of a key economic issue. It is also priced at $20 (download only version) for private viewing, when some of the other documentaries are available for free. Having said that, because it focuses on the role of the Fed over the years, viewers interested in understanding central banking are likely to find Money for Nothing worth watching.
For more reviews of finance-related films, read “Top 20 Films about Finance: From Crisis to Con Men.”
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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