August 13, 2013

What ‘Elysium’ Suggests About the Future of Finance

In the 22nd Century, the world of wealth may look like an exaggerated version of today's reality, according to movie director Neill Blomkamp

“Elysium,” a new sci-fi action film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, presents life in 2154 with —generally speaking—the 1% living in the idyllic space station Elysium and the 99% stuck on a very polluted and over-populated Earth.

Many of the scenes were filmed in both poor and wealthy areas of Mexico City, though much of the movie itself is set in Los Angeles. Robots and machines seem to do all the work in this dystopian future, except for tasks like cleaning, manufacturing and fighting. (If you can handle the 30-second pre-roll commercial, you can view the movie trailer here.)

What the financial industry would look like on Earth and Elysium in the middle of the 22nd Century isn’t very clear in Neill Blomkamp’s latest film, but we get some nuances.

There are definitely investors. The CEO of Armadyne Corporation, the builder of the space station and robots that manage security on Earth and Elysuim, speaks about the need for improved productivity, financial results and investor returns in one scene. (His name is John Carlyle, which could be a reference to today’s Carlyle Group, an asset manager and private-equity firm with large investments in the aerospace and defense industries.)

The main industry we see in “Elysium,” however, is the medical industry, which is dominated by overwhelmed and struggling doctors and nurses on Earth and Med-Pod machines on the space station. People on Earth do all they can to travel to the space station in order to access the Med-Pods, which cure the body of any illness or issue in seconds after verifying Elysium citizenship.

It’s possible that a Fund-Pod or Money-Pod could exist on Elysium as well, though none appear in the move. Such a device might read someone’s information chip (planted in his or her head) and access their electronic financial records to put together a financial plan, for instance. Or a high-level financial advisor might meet in person with wealthy clients on Elysium, only to have the portfolio management and other grunt work done by a machine, humans or both back on Earth.

Such scenarios, of course, aren’t so farfetched. We know how important software and algorithms have become to the financial services field. And ThinkAdvisor blogger Michael Kitces has written recently about the rise of the so-called "robo-advisor," an online computer platform that provides financial advice directly to investors.

Kitces, however, argues that in any competition between human advisors and robo-advisors, the real winner may be “the technology-augmented human,” or "cyborg advisor,” who can wrestle equally with machines and humans. Future generations, he notes, may turn to firms like LearnVest, that is working with middle-market Gen X and Gen Y women—both online and offline— to better take control of their personal finances.

This middle path might prove effective with middle-market clients. Indeed, it’s a strategy that Merrill Lynch employs with its mass-affluent Merrill Edge platform, helping tech-savvy consumers become more investment-savvy investors.

The trouble is that in Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” there is no middle market, because there is no more middle class. It’s a future of haves (the 1%) and have-nots (the 99%).

Presenting a world of such extremes makes for gripping storytelling and poignant sci-fi movie making. In an age in which America’s middle class continues to shrink, inequality keeps rising at a dramatic rate, and economic mobility appears to becoming more limited, however, the movie also provides us with food for thought.

For advisors and others in the financial-services business, such a future would entail many fewer clients and, hence, very little economic opportunity in both the world of the 1% and that of the 99%—a sobering presentation of what one filmmaker believes we are confronting in many ways already today and what may lie ahead of us as well.

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