The Gen-X Wolves of Wall Street
It’s totally been overshadowed by the Wolf of Wall Street, but 2000’s Boiler Room is actually the first movie inspired by Jordan Belfort and his penny-stock empire. Instead of the late 1980s, this flick is set during the halcyon days of 1999 — back when Austin Powers was considered subversive, N*SYNC could sell a million CDs in a week, and it felt like anyone could strike it rich off of tech stocks. It may not have the same A-list cache that Scorsese later delivered (Boiler Room swaps Leo and Jonah for Vin and, uh, Giovanni), but it’s still a pretty great portrayal of late 90’s materialism underscored by a killer hip-hop soundtrack.
Boiler Room follows Seth, a 19-year-old college dropout who runs an unlicensed casino in his apartment. He gets recruited to join J.T. Marlin, a brokerage firm off the Long Island Expressway that pushes dodgy companies to desperate clients. The money comes fast, and the booze, cars, and women follow, but once Seth peeks behind the curtain of J.T Marlin, he figures out just how destructive their sales tactics truly are.
Boiler Room’s plot is fairly paint-by-numbers, and the film wears its homages on its sleeve — groups of stockbroker bros actually meet up for Wall Street quote-a-longs inside their unfurnished apartments.
But was any of it realistic? Should we still be concerned about teens in bad suits stealing our money over the phone?
Bill Vlaad may just have the answer. He’s a self-described “reformed investment banker” who was down on Bay Street making million-dollar deals and logging 100-hour work weeks from 1998-2004. After burning out and switching to headhunting, Vlaad now funnels the next wave of ambitious young things to the trading room floor. Vlaad never worked in a Boiler Room-style “chop shop” himself, but he’s heard a few things during his time in the Financial District.
We questioned him on what Boiler Room got right, and what’s strictly cinematic fantasy:
Can stockbrokers really earn more than surgeons?
Boiler Room features a cameo from Ben Affleck doing his best Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross. In a profanity-laced rant to J.T Marlin’s new recruits, he promises that as long as they’re “always closing” on every sales call, they’re guaranteed to make their first million within three years. That’s pretty impressive money, especially for 16 years ago.
In 2017 Canada, the median salary for a broker is $62,537, not including commissions. But ask Vlaad about it, and the “million in three years” number won’t be raising many eyebrows among the higher echelon of traders.
Could you end up buying stocks from a 19-year-old?
J.T. Marlin fills its ranks with hungry young men from NYC’s outer boroughs — dropouts who quote Biggie and think Scarface is an aspirational story. The firm doesn’t want their new hires coming in with any pesky senses of “ethics” or “regulations,” so anyone with stockbroking experience doesn’t make it past the first interview.
Vlaad comes out pretty definitively against this plot point. “This one would never happen today.” In Canada, prospective stockbrokers have to have bachelor’s degree, take the CSI Global Education’s Canadian Securities Course (CSC), gain 12 months of experience within the securities industry, pass the CSC exam, and then register with a national database. Basically without most of these boxes checked, you won’t even find yourself an interview.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that this kind of fraud never happened in the past. There are plenty of cases, especially in the US, where unlicensed brokers bilked clients of their savings. “Like any good legal case, it made us aware of where the holes are,” says Vladd. “We’ll probably look back at 2017 in ten years and go, wow, that was so backwards.”
Would a broker ever try to sell you stock in a fake company?
Staff at J.T Marlin don’t care if the stock they’re peddling is worthless, or even fake. They sell it because their commission, and their condos, depend on it.
“Fictitious companies? No. Stock that people didn’t believe in? Well, that’s perspective,” says Vlaad. “There are definitely people out there pitching stocks they don’t wholly believe in because it’s the flavour of the day and they have to.”
The odd broker may suggest one stock over another due to pressure from above, but outright lying about its prospects is something else entirely. “There are a lot of regulatory systems in place that would make it very difficult to pitch a stock without the support of research and information,” he notes. “If you’re going to say, ‘this is going to go from A to B,’ you have to back it up.” Each province and territory in Canada has its own securities commission which supervises trading behaviour. Most of the smaller boutique firms, like the kind from Boiler Room, went out of business after getting levelled with fees for pushing stocks without substance.
Can I run my own “Pump and Dump” scam?
Along with its quotes and hair gel, Boiler Room also cribs from Wall Street’s ending. After seeing the error of his ways, Seth gets a client he previously swindled to buy a bunch of stock in a fake company, pulls some strings to get J. T. Marlin to invest, and instructs to his client to sell — leaving the firm the loser of its own game.
Could a trader run this scam today? “Historically, yes. Now? Not a chance,” says Vlaad. The “Pump and Dump” scam is well-known to regulators, and they keep a close watch on penny stocks for any irregularities. Meanwhile, an entirely fake company would be be found out almost immediately.
Boiler Room was actually pretty accurate for its time. But thankfully, like jelly shoes, the Rachel haircut, and labeling things “da bomb,” the financial scams it depicts didn’t survive the new millennium.