Thursday, 30 August 2012

20 terrible finance clichés

Let's leverage our synergies
To celebrate five years of financial services journalism, I've compiled a list of twenty words or phrases that the industry loves just a bit too much.

Some of these platitudes are frustrating from a journalistic point of view. The same worn clichés tarnish the English language daily, wheeled out by highly intelligent people who certainly studied some English before collecting  MBAs and joining the corporate BS wagon.

Other culprits on this list reflect the industry when at its pompous, vainglorious worst. While busy doing God’s work – or taking the global economy to the brink – many a City boy has turned this lexicon into an insulating comfort blanket against some cold, hard truths.

So here goes...

A euphemistic acronym if ever there was one. GFC is for Global Financial Crisis. I first remember hearing it in 2009. The crisis was still very much in evidence; the can had barely been kicked down the street; the threat was returning in sovereign debt form. Someone in the industry must have got impatient. So why not sanitise it as the GFC? Vomit.

The word derives from the Greek “to guess”. Yes, really. Used by risk modelling types to sound awfully sophisticated, it could be replaced by “random”, which doesn’t sound half so clever.

Wouldn't plain old “lever” do?  Repeated ad nauseam, I still think it sounds awful as a verb. And it gets used again and again, inexcusably, outside of its technical investment definition / context. It’s often a euphemism too: “leveraged up to the hilt” sounds a bit more professional than the Victorian “queer street” or just plain old indebtedness.

Someone’s about to lose their job.


Cycle back / Touch base
Two nauseating favourites over-used by many PRs, marketers, sales-types and BS merchants everywhere; it’s also increasingly being parroted by lazy hacks.

Pull the trigger
One over-used by Alpha sales boys. They could just “do” whatever it is, but no.

Used in the same context but by those seeking to sound officious.

Why not say increase” once in a while? I’m not sure why this one is such common currency.

Going forward
This empty-headed phrase adds absolutely nothing of value to any sentence.

Change manager
This person lives in a constant state of flux. It’s basically a gold star for somebody who likes to steam in and take over somebody else’s job during a merger, or some other awfully sophisticated corporate reformation.

Something is either good value or it isn’t. There are costs and benefits, beneficiaries and benefactors, winners and losers. Some things can even add value to other things. There is no reason for this phrase to exist.

High yield
Maybe junk bond just sounded too yuppie. I'd prefer “risky business.

Didn’t see that one coming, huh? Another euphemism for something rubbish.

We may be God’s children in the dark, but this is frequently used as yet another euphemism for something shady.

Skin in the game
Horribly overused, this one; basically people should only gamble with their own money.

Another example of sanitising a crappy situation, this one has seen lots of use since the credit crisis from firms seeking to reduce their bets, cutting risky exposures to focus on more plain “vanilla” investments in hard times.

A tough one, this. If it looks like a bond and feels like a bond, it’s probably a bond. In happier days, Islamic investors could recline and enjoy conscience-free returns. It took a crisis for tougher questions to emerge. There were quite a few abandoned sports cars, keys still in their ignitions, left at Dubai’s airport in 2009. I’m guessing their flighty owners were dabbling in debt.

One for the social media marketing luvvies, rather than strictly finance. I think it just means that a website is popular.

Responsible lending
As far as I can tell, this is what lenders should have been doing all along, made to sound like an innovative new idea.

I must have missed many more!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Catch 22: London's Assange Stand-off

Julian Assange: America's top troublemaker?
The siege drama going on at the Ecuadorian embassy in London is catching many people's beliefs somewhere between a rock and a hard place. 

Balcony theatrics have lent Julian Assange a melodramatic platform from which to appeal to our sensibilities about liberal free speech, press freedoms and transparent governance.

Mr Assange kept quiet about the rape allegations, which would paint him in a different hue. I'm not sure myself what to think of Mr Assange: tech genius; oddball eccentric; ruthless journalist; amoral and ambitious; a dangerous, destabilising threat? All might apply.

Twitter looks in serious danger of devouring itself over the topic: pitting liberal lefties who hate the US government on principle against (usually indistinguishable) feminist-first commentators, for whom the rape charges (however shaky) must (I'd agree) take precedence. To me, that's not about igniting a rape debate, but the rule of law.

Yesterday's Evita-esque spectacle looked and sounded crass to me. His talk of policemen stalking the fire exit stairwells but conspicuous lack of any mention or showing of respect for the rape allegations seemed wrong.

Ironically enough for a man heading an organisation founded on libertarian principles of free speech, Assange's balcony stance had the look of a tinpot Latin American populist.

It's worth pointing out that Ecuador's leftist government shelters its own leader from prosecution, treats journalists like criminals, and regularly enjoys riling the US, alongside Venezuela's odious Hugo Chavez, and for ideological reasons opposite to Assange's.

Yes, most of us can agree that the US is on embarked on a witch hunt against Wikileaks and its Australian founder, Julian Assange.  It's hard to argue against, given the amount of times Wikileaks itself was targeted by cyber attacks. There is also a serious attempt to classify Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation, alongside bomb-toting nasties like Al-Qaeda.

The sexual allegations against Assange look far from watertight. He has powerful enemies. Like many historical figureheads of astute political or media organisations, Assange's own behaviour (in his case sexually liberal, at least) appears to have become a vulnerability.

On a personal level, I take offence to Wikileaks' simplistic moral imperative that transparency must always be a good thing. We all have our own moral codes, but there are times when they must be contradicted. The world is a murkier place than we like to admit.

Transparent governance is for the most part an admirable mantra. Taken to an extreme by Wikileaks, it can poison the norms of international diplomacy. Such disclosures can, and quite possibly have already, cost lives. Assange probably thinks deep down that he should expect to have a degree of personal privacy, but clearly he thinks governments have no such rights.

"Public interest" is usually shouted in return by those exhorting maximum disclosure, yet Wikileaks is not an accountable body in the same way that mainstream journalism can be brought to book, as it has in recent years in the UK with charges levied for phone-hacking.

Assange operates outside of the rules of journalistic standards, in an era when bloggers, twitter and the web have stretched and blurred the lines of journalism at new extremities. 

Operating outside of the rules of the game has already seen Australia go quite far to turning its back on Assange. Most countries will now consider him an outlaw of one sort or other. Not Ecuador, apparently. Certainly Assange is showing a lack of respect for Swedish law, right now.

As for the UK government, it, like Assange, seems caught between a rock and a hard place. Certainly the UK enjoys strong ties with the US, while many Britons seem to enjoy thumbing Uncle Sam with a thin smattering of Anti-American sentiment (or at least against those shady types in Washington, or war-hungry frat-boy "Dubya" caricatures).

This misrepresents the UK's position. In order to show proper respect for Sweden and international law (oh please stop muttering about Iraq already), the UK is obliged to hand Assange over. 

Bookmakers are taking odds on Assange escaping by helicopter or tunnelling under Knightsbridge. It seems unlikely he can skip the police cordon as easily as he skipped bail already, so a plane to Ecuador seems equally far-fetched.

You only have to think back to April and it was the Americans sheltering a blind Chinese legal activist from Beijing's authoritarian clutches. Who's the bad guy now?

Ironically enough, commentators are now comparing Assange's plight with that of a cardinal seeking political asylum at the height of the Cold War; he was trapped in the US Embassy in Hungary for 15 years.

If the Swedes can guarantee not to hand over Assange to the Americans, that might tempt him out from his Ecuadorian bolt-hole, but that is not the UK's part in this sticky Catch 22 situation.