Today was the world premiere of Carl Icahn’s new thriller "Danger Ahead," a film in which the billionaire investor managed to touch on just about every hot-button topic in financial markets.
(Parents note: This movie has not yet been rated yet but will probably get a PG-13 for salty language. Thankfully, there’s no nudity.)
In the film, Icahn criticized both political parties for not reaching a tax compromise that would encourage American widget makers to bring more than $2 trillion in foreign profits back to the U.S. He criticized earnings reports wholesale as "suspect" due to financial engineering via share buybacks and M&A.
He criticized companies for not taking advantage of low interest rates to increase capital expenditures -- buying new machinery and equipment, etc. -- to make workers more productive. He criticized the Federal Reserve for keeping rates low for too long and encouraging investments in riskier, higher-yielding debt by people who don’t understand what they’re buying.
He made it clear that he is officially one of the People Worried About Bond Market Liquidity and that if a real problem emerges in the economy, "there’s going to be a rush for the exits like in a movie theater."
He criticized Wall Street sales folk for having a code of ethics he jokingly characterized as less virtuous than the mafia. He humorously inserted a clip from "Goodfellas" at this point. (This is a bit of a movie flaw on Icahn’s part since the main characters of that flick weren’t officially "made men" due to Irish blood. We’ll cut him some slack on that, even though this is a touchy subject for aspiring Irish mobsters.)
Anyway, if all of this sounds familiar, it should. These have been some of the running themes of financial commentary for the last few years and Icahn does a nice job of summarizing them for those among us who haven’t been paying attention. The subtitle of “Danger Ahead” could be "No Hot Button Left Behind."
Still, any movie critic will tell you it’s important to understand the genre. This is ostensibly a political film -- its goal seems to be to deliver an endorsement for Donald Trump. And as such, pointing out the country’s scary financial issues isn’t enough. The viewer craves solutions to these problems. And that’s where "Danger Ahead" disappoints.
To be sure, Icahn does hint at some solutions in the film and in an interview with Beth Jinks about it. He endorses a discounted tax rate of 7 percent to 15 percent to bring home the cash that companies hold abroad, while removing tax discounts that his fat-cat money manager pals enjoy on profits from carried interest.
Though, if we’re to subscribe to Icahn’s view of things, won’t these companies just spend all of that repatriated cash on financial engineering projects like buybacks and levering up for more takeovers? What role does a government of a free-market economy play in forcing or encouraging the right uses of cash and debt, especially when there isn’t always a clear consensus on what the "right" use is? Are we to outlaw junk-bond ETFs? What legislation would solve these issues and how will it get by Congress?
Pointing out flaws is easy, finding solutions is the hard part. Let’s hope Icahn delivers some more in the sequel to "Danger Ahead" or in his press tour to promote the film. To borrow one of his analogies: He has gathered us in his theater to watch this movie, but so far all he’s really done is yell "fire."