How to Speak Money: high finance demystified

With a novelist's care for language, this author unpicks the weasel words of business and economics - and has fun while he does so, says Stefan Stern.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2014

It is now more than six years since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent near-death experience of the global financial network. A few things became clear in the aftermath. The banking and financial system was out of control. Economies were vulnerable to the mad actions of a few greedy and wildly ambitious people. Individuals, even those living in democracies, were powerless to resist. And something had to be done about all this to ensure nothing like it could happen again.

Right. Why has so little changed? One of the reasons, apart from sheer political stasis and inertia, may be something to do with the at times mysterious language of finance and economics. How can you try to control a world so full of jargon and obscure algorithmic calculation? Who can move fast enough to regulate a high- frequency trader?

The novelist John Lanchester has turned his inquisitive and imaginative mind to these questions and produced a delightful book: a primer and lexicon for those seeking to understand this resolutely impenetrable world of money, finance and economics.

This is not an anti-business book. Lanchester is not advocating alternatives to capitalism. As the son of an old-school banker he has a regard for what responsible finance can do to help people start businesses and create jobs. It is the mismatch that concerns him - the gap between the admirable ideals of the best business people and the confused and confusing reality of what we actually see all around us.

The language of money, Lanchester says, 'is powerful and efficient, but it is also both exclusive and excluding. Those qualities are intimately linked.' And as a lay observer of this world he has tried to get to grips with it. Why? 'I came to think that there was a gap in the culture, in that most of the writing on these subjects was either by business journalists who thought that everything about the world of business was great, or by furious opponents from the left who thought it was so terrible that there was no interesting story to be told: that what was needed was rageful denunciation. Both sides missed the complexities, and therefore the interest, of the story.'

It is as a keen observer (and user) of language that Lanchester particularly scores. The guts of the book is an A-Z lexicon, in which he acts as a latter-day Dr Johnson, providing pithy and amusing definitions of terms we hear so often but perhaps fail properly to understand.

For example: austerity, 'the strangest piece of political/economic vocabulary to come along in my lifetime'. Lanchester's take? 'The word "austerity" is an attempt to make something moral-sounding and value-based out of specific reductions in government spending, which cause specific losses to specific people.'

He is equally crisp with 'deregulation': 'The idea behind deregulation was that markets could do a better job of regulating themselves than regulations ever could. It had been completely disproved by the events of the credit crunch.'

Lanchester argues that a linguistic process he calls 'reversification' has taken place, whereby words come to have a meaning that is opposite to or at the very least different from their original sense. Hedge used to mean taking precautions, but is now the label for the most adventurous funds of all. Securitisation now in effect means making something risky out of something that was solid. Credit has been reversed to mean debt; synergy means sacking people, and so on.

This is the Through the Looking-Glass world of modern finance and economic debate, in which the words obscure or disguise the underlying realities. It is vital, Lanchester says, to distinguish between 'bullshit', which is misleading but ultimately harmless, and 'nonsense', which can do real damage.

So bamboozling is this world of finance that the book's editors managed to spell Ebitda (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) wrong, calling it Editda, unfortunately, in a heading.

'Neo-liberalism' also takes a serious hit. 'If you think that markets are the solution to everything,' writes Lanchester, 'and have some kind of mystical ability to always be right and to self-regulate, well then, you are probably a neo-liberal economist.' I don't think he is convinced.

He is unconvinced because underlying all this bogus financial and economic mystique is the real and growing problem of inequality - a world that is 'doing the splits', as Lanchester puts it. And yet even while inequality within developed countries rises, progress towards millennium development goals has been remarkable, if underdiscussed.

It took a non-specialist to call, well, bullshit on the fake mystique of finance and economics. He has done so brilliantly, with wit and charm. Keep a copy handy as you hear the latest from analysts and market watchers, and see how much 'reversification' you can spot. I finished the book feeling rationally exuberant.

Stefan Stern is a visiting professor at Cass Business School. Follow him on @StefanStern

How To Speak Money: What the money people say, and what they really mean by John Lanchester. Published by Faber & Faber, £17.99

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