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Monday, 12 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (14) - ABACUS:SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (Steve James, USA). Reviewed by Rod Bishop


Thomas Sung (r), Abacus:Small Enough to Jail
The Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City currently ranks as the 2,555th largest bank in the USA.

It’s also the only bank to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud from the Great Financial Crisis.
Established in 1984, much is made of founder Thomas Sung’s inspiration from George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s A Wonderful Life. Sung claims Bailey’s community-oriented sympathies in banking led Sung to create a family-owned bank to service Chinatown with loans to businesses and mortgages to local residents. 

In 2010, his senior managers uncovered fraud - an employee was taking bribes. Two years later, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted the bank and 19 of its employees on more than 80 charges. The bank was charged with running a conspiracy to defraud its customers and Fanny Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association.

Five years later and $10 million down the drain, the Sung Family and the bank were acquitted.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) forensically details the events. Sung’s three daughters help run the bank (one defected from working at the District Attorney’s Office when charges were laid). They prove to be engaging commentators as does Sung’s wife who also provides dead-pan comedy relief to proceedings.

The banking irregularities are well demonstrated as possibly due to cultural differences; the distinction between loans and gifts blurred by family relations and by a predominately cash economy in Chinatown. This blurring become standard operating procedure at the Abacus Bank.
Steve James’s driving thesis here is an inversion of “Too Big To Fail” (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch et al) to “Small Enough To Jail” (Abacus); government victimization with more than a whiff of racism. Certainly, the Festival crowd agreed, jeering and laughing at appropriate moments and yelling insults at the spokespeople for the District Attorney’s Office. It was like watching 4 Corners or Q & A with hundreds of like-minded friends in your living room.


By the end, there’s a slightly uneasy feeling that Steve James hasn’t categorically proved his point. On the other hand, as Abacus’s defense lawyer points out, unlike the GFC who got hurt here? Who lost money? The bank’s default rate was an exceptionally low 0.3% and whichever way you look at it, for a bank charged with mortgage fraud and conspiracy, that’s a compelling figure.

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