“There are no good guys in this story,” says financial whistleblower Dan David. “Not even me.” That’s a grabby intro for a documentary that exposes greed on a level that would make Gordon Gekko blush. “The China Hustle,” from director Jed Rothstein, is a companion piece to “Inside Job” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” movies about money manipulation that should send a chill down the back of anyone with an ATM card.
The story really begins after the 2008 stock market crash. Giant losses put companies in the position of having to generate large sums of cash quickly in the global market. David, like many others, looked to China. “If you want to be a criminal,” says one talking head, “it’s best to go somewhere with no cops. That was China.” China offered new markets, little oversight and he potential to print money. Cue a stock market feeding frenzy but because foreigners can’t invest directly in Chinese companies along came something called the reverse merger, a mix-and-match of American shell companies and foreign entities. It was a recipe for disaster, ripe with fraud and greed, kind of like investing your retirement money in lottery tickets.
Stories of financial malfeasance are so common that “The China Hustle” doesn’t seem like it will offer anything new. Regular folks put up their savings, lose everything while money managers and banks keep the fees. The story may be familiar but it is compelling. Greed and risk are compelling subjects and the kind of scam carefully detailed here is a prime example of extreme avarice. But why do people get sucked into these situations time and time again? It’s like the punch line of the old Wall Street joke says, “This time it is different.” And so it goes. The hope of easy money is irresistible.
You don’t need to be a trader to understand “The China Hustle.” It isn’t so much a lesson in economics as it is a film about due diligence and common sense. In the micro the film’s message can be boiled down to something everyone’s grandmother said, there’s no such thing as free money. The larger story is more complicated, like an economic detective story. It’s a timely one too. This isn’t a history lesson. The events from our recent past detailed here still reverberate and now as the Trump government seeks to deregulate banks even further, it is a story of abuse and lack of oversight that could easily repeat itself.