In Anton Valukis's 2,200-page, hulking loaf of a report on the Lehman Brothers collapse, two words stood out: "accounting gimmick". As gimmicks go, one involving accounting sounds dire. (Free Excel spreadsheets with your tax return!) But Lehman used this gimmick to remove $50bn of assets from its balance sheet, allowing the bank to conceal its debt and hoodwink investors. It's the financial equivalent of hiding dirty clothes under your bed before your mum checks if you've tidied your room.
But $50bn. $50bn! Thanks to a gimmick? I thought a gimmick was a trick, an empty promise peddled to win votes or lure consumers. Fashion magazines giving away flip-flops; toys with your McDonald's Happy Meal; politicians pledging free toasted cheese sandwiches (for all!) a week before the election. Since when could a gimmick play a major part in the collapse of the global financial system?
It's an impressive euphemism, ranking up there with collateral damage (innocent dead people) or transgression (Tiger Woods sleeping with a whole sorority). But Valukis apparently likes to perplex with his language - he suggests, for example, that "colourable claims" could be made against Lehman execs (which means they're up every kind of creek but sounds more like a nursery-school exercise).
But back to the matter in hand. There's something about "gimmick" that seems throwaway, flimsy. "It's just a gimmick" is what most people say about gimmicks. They are dismissed, spat out, forgotten. Not any more (in the italicised threat of Dan Brown). Gimmicks went up in the world while no one was looking. They became expansionist, fuelled by their financial prowess. No more cheapo high-street crap for us, they cried. We're on Wall Street. We're hanging out with the Masters of the Universe.
Oh, the hubris. But in a way, the "gimmick" story is the perfect analogy for the crisis itself - a word creeping above its station, believing it was infallible. If only you'd stayed closer to the truth, gimmick, maybe we wouldn't all be in this mess.