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3 December 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 10:46am

Call it a load of old bull

Bad banks, troubled assets and securitised loans – such linguistic tricks just add to the madness of

By Harry Shearer

Euphemisms, by their nature, are supposed to plaster over unpleasant truths. In my adopted home town of New Orleans, a city known for its straight talking, the estate agents have lately taken to renaming the little residen­ces at the backs of main houses – long known by their truthful name, “slave quarters” – as “dependency units”. The mind rebels.

I always thought of the economic and financial worlds as similarly resistant to euphemising. We had bulls and bears, of course, but those were metaphorical caricatures of real attitudes. Most of the jargon of the money world was, if anything, mind-numbingly literal: puts and calls, debentures and debt. But that all changed during the recent madness, a madness that may have been exacerbated by the looseness of the language.

This was a time, after all, when financial services began to be called “products”. Conventional thinking would suggest that if I lend you money I haven’t given you a product; I’ve afforded you (temporarily) the means to purchase products or services. But that was the term financial firms, insurance companies and banks started to use to refer to what they were offering.

Did it make people in these enterprises feel more muscular, less nurturing? Was it a linguistic farewell wave to a manufacturing economy, disappearing just as finance took centre stage? Seemingly innocuous, this change naturally led, as it did in the world of actual products, to an important next step: product innovation. Loans are loans, but a loan product seems awfully lonely up there on the shelf, all by itself. It needed some friends, some fellow products. Some friends.

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Enter Ninas, home loans that required from their prospective borrowers “no income, no assets”. Like the other loan “products”, they had something in common with their manufactured brethren: once sold, they left the purview of their sellers. As with products, future responsibility for them was farmed out to someone else, preferably in Bangalore. Calling these things products made it possible, maybe even mandatory, to treat them as such. The only “service” left in the equation was the “servicing” of the loans, which itself was a euphemism for collecting.

Calling these loans Ninas feminised them, made them seem cute, charming, a little naughty, perhaps, but not criminal. Just as referring to the whole class of loans as “sub-prime” avoided the unpleasantness of the reality that they were junk. It’s like describing someone on his deathbed as “sub-well”.

When things started going bad, the language started getting even cuter. A year ago, we were told that the main cause of the crisis was the crushing burden of “toxic assets” – home mortgages lent to borrowers who could afford to pay them off just as soon as pigs filed flight plans. That’s why three-quarters of a trillion dollars went from the US treasury into the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, or TARP (reassuring, isn’t it? A safe plastic covering, in capital letters), supposedly to get these toxic assets off the books of the banks. In fact, entirely something else happened with the money, and with the language. While the federal funds became a simple cash infusion into favoured banks, the word “toxic” was nudged aside in favour of “troubled”. Really. The assets were now to be seen as delinquent youths, their faces smudged with dirt, their clothes tattered but their souls still full of potential. It wasn’t really their fault. They didn’t need to be wiped off the books, just . . . understood.

Where were those assets supposed to go? Many officials proposed the notion of a “bad bank”. Again, just a miscreant, like the dog that poops on the living-room carpet. Bad bank! Sit over there in a corner and think about those stinky mortgages you’re collecting! It’s a rolled-up newspaper to your noggin if you try it again. Of course, the main thrust of this particular euphemistic gambit was a brave attempt to convince us that there was, by contrast, such a thing as a good bank. Nice try.

When you want your euphemising to be particularly opaque, you go French. Hence, “tranche”. Look it up and the dictionary will tell you it means “slice”, but that sounds like something that’s done in a delicatessen, parcelling out thin portions of pastrami to the waiting rye bread. That’s not what sophisticated gents (and ladies) in bespoke suitings do inside Important Offices. The desired effect of tranche was to induce a tranche-like state, in which investors would come to assume that the people slicing up pieces of bad mortgages actually knew what they were doing.

This leads us to “securitising”, which is to securing as “believitising” is to believing. In fact, believitising would be the creation of exactly the level of credulity this stuff called for; unfortunately, nobody bothered to coin that word until just now. The essence of securitising was persuading the financial ratings companies, by means as yet unknown, that a collection of slices of crappy mortgages (or a slice of a collection, take your pick) could be an AAA-grade investment. Those letters are themselves a kind of linguistic shorthand, as what they’re really saying is: “Of course, this posits a new scale on which, if securitised mortgage packages are AAA, a truly secure investment would be ratedAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA+++.” That is, it would be ratingised.

When the market tumbled a year ago, there was an uptick within a few weeks. That started a discussion about whether or not this was a “dead cat bounce”, the short-lived surge upward before the destined plummeting resumes. When I first heard the phrase, I thought it was the name of a particularly inelegantly titled 1940s dance tune. But no, it’s an example of financial malphemism, in which a mere reversal of market direction is depicted as an act of cruelty to animals – the dropping of an expired (or soon-to-be-expired) feline for the purpose of measuring gravity’s effect on its air-worthiness. The deliberate crudity of the phrase probably reflects its origins among short-sellers and their contempt for any sign of hope.

Which brings us to the pedlars of positive thinking, among whom “green shoots” have contended with “glimmers of hope” as the optimistic usage of choice. “Green shoots” implies an organic process of growth, outside human control, but dependent on the season. “Glimmers” are more promising, requiring neither a green thumb nor the right time of year to make their appearance. This phrase has been a par­ticular favourite of the US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Visualising these glimmers became for him almost an evangelical enterprise. Were they just an aurora geithnerealis, or were they signs of a true recovery? Don’t ask, brothers and sisters, just believe.

And then there is the word tossed around blithely by CEOs and financial journalists alike, designed to drain all the dread out of one of the most frightening consequences of economic slowdown. That word is “shed” – not as in the little building out back where you keep your tools, but as in what prudent companies do to jobs. We’ve not been experiencing the widespread throwing of people out of work recently, just the shedding of jobs.
The word makes the process sound all National Geographic, like what snakes do with their skins every whenever. But its progress has not yet led it to the scene of the actual transaction: “Bill, we value your contribution to the company over the years. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to shed you.” No, “let you go” still is the go-to euphemism. Which raises the question: “But what if I don’t want to go?” We’re still letting you do it.

Contemplating these linguistic tricks inspired me. I have written songs around them, including “Bad Bank”, “Troubled Assets”, “Dead Cat Bounce” and “Glimmers of Hope”. They appear online as part of a collection of compositions about the meltdown, named after the two contending forces in stock markets: Greed and Fear. It was an act not so much of composing, frankly, as of songitising.

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in “The Simpsons” and was Derek Smalls in “This is Spinal Tap”. For more information, visit his website.

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