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Wall Street (1987) — “Greed is Good”

I just re-watched the original 1987 film, Wall Street. (The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is in theatres now, and apparently doing very well.) In the original Wall Street, Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, is a corporate raider — essentially, he buys up underperforming companies, breaks them up and sells their parts at a […]

I just re-watched the original 1987 film, Wall Street. (The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is in theatres now, and apparently doing very well.)

In the original Wall Street, Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, is a corporate raider — essentially, he buys up underperforming companies, breaks them up and sells their parts at a healthy profit. What drives him? Greed, pure and simple. In one scene, Gekko appears at the annual shareholders’ meeting being held by Teldar Paper. Gekko owns shares, but wants more. He wants control of the company, though his motives for doing so are hidden. It is there that he delivers the speech that includes the movie’s most famous line. “Greed,” he tells the shareholders of Teldar, “is good.”

That line is the only thing a lot of people alive in the 80′s remember about Wall Street. And that’s a shame.

Here’s Gordon Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” speech, in its entirety:

Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

The first thing to note about this speech is how little of it is actually about greed — roughly the last third of the speech. The first two thirds is a critique (disingenuous, as it happens, but not therefore off-target) of the complacency of overpaid corporate executives. Gekko is advising Teldar’s shareholders that the people responsible for protecting their interests — Teldar’s executives and Board — have been doing a bad job.

How does that first part relate to the final third of the speech, the part about greed being good? Well, it’s worth noting that when Gekko first uses the word “greed,” he does so “for lack of a better word.” And Gekko, one-dimensional character that he is, probably does lack a better word for it. For him, it really is greed — the unseemly and excessive love of money. But Teldar’s shareholders don’t need personally to embrace greed in the Gordon Gekko sense. All they need to do is to see that their interests are not being served well, and to understand that Gekko’s own greed is likely to serve them better: he wants to make a killing on the Teldar deal, and if they let him do so, they’ll all make a little money themselves, along the way. His greed is good for them.

Is Gekko’s greed a good thing over all? Well, Gekko says nothing, in his speech, about the interests of other stakeholders in Teldar Paper, stakeholders such as the company’s employees for example. If Gekko breaks up the company, shareholders may benefit but employees will lose jobs. That’s a bad thing, but it’s also sometimes inevitable. Not all companies should stay in business.

No, greed is not good. But the point — the grain of truth in Gordon Gekko’s Machiavellian speech — is that if shareholders allow executives and Boards to operate inefficiently, rather than using what little power they have to improve their lot, then they are suckers, being taken for a ride. And there’s no particular virtue in that.