Many of us will have watched the recent Channel 4 documentary on ‘Dispatches – How the banks went bust’ with feelings of helplessness, disbelief and frustration.
The comments made by the financial experts contributing to the programme were like Plain English Campaign’s predictions over the past 30 years. But there was little satisfaction for us in knowing that language had been exploited and misused to such an extent as to contribute to the economic disaster being felt on a worldwide scale.
As individuals, we fight to varying degrees with the daily jargon and gobbledygook in our mail, our workplaces, even our entertainment. As a civilisation built on sophisticated commerce and communications, we believe the experts, in whatever field, know what they are doing. Whether we like it or even agree with it, the leadership from our government, the judgement of the finance industry, and the discoveries of our medical providers have all been accepted and trusted by the public. For the most part, we, the public, believe what we are told – whether we understand it or not – and we place our trust in the leaders and experts who have achieved their positions because at least they do understand. Or perhaps they don’t?
This extract from the book ‘Cityboy – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile’ by Geraint Anderson, is a real-life demonstration of the extent to which language is used to control people, power and politics.
“… At one point I overheard this clearly intimidated individual make the terrible mistake of asking Hugo ‘What exactly is it that you do?
’ Hugo leaned back in his chair with an ever-widening smug smile on his face and proceeded to begin a five-minute spiel, braying loudly and loving the sound of his own voice. I listened to his explanation and hardly understood what he said myself – and even at that stage, I had a vague idea what it was we did. Instead of saying quite simply that we analyse companies and explain to investors whether we believe the company’s shares are going to go up or down, he went into a long convoluted load of nonsense using every conceivable specialist terminology possible. His little speech went something like this:
‘Enterprise value blah, blah, blah, return on equity etc, etc, etc, earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation … economic value added … cash flow, return on investment and so forth’...”
Geraint Anderson, author of the book 'Cityboy - Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile'
This whole experience made me reflect on how we in the City use arcane language and peculiar terminology to confuse those who don’t earn as much as us (i.e. pretty much everyone). It makes us sound like we’re doing something extraordinarily complicated and technically unfathomable and keeps our potential detractors in the dark. We are a much harder target if the ‘common man’ feels intimidated by our complex world and doesn’t even understand what we do. We push around bits of paper. That’s what we do. That’s all we do.”
Geraint is a strong supporter of clear communications. He was one of the UK’s top four brokers before his revelations about the ‘financial philanderings’ saw him wave goodbye to the Square Mile.
Jon Moulton of Alchemy Partners, another highly respected financial figure, contributed this comment to the documentary.
“Much of the structured finance world was actually home-grown here. UK banks got involved with things they couldn’t measure, couldn’t control, didn’t understand. Some got into very sexy, almost incomprehensible contracts. Synthetic mezzanine CLO squareds? Not sure I know what it is either but I promise you that some of the banks have them.”
Jon Moulton, whose opinions show signs of him being a Plain English Campaigner, goes on to tell how he was asked to explain ‘CLOs’ at an emergency meeting at the Bank of England when the vulnerability and complexity of the risk management system could no longer be denied.
“…trying to explain CLOs to some very senior people at the Bank of England. Using the back of a menu to actually explain it to them.”
CLOs or CDOs were the ‘magic’ investment products created by the finance gurus. These collateralised loan obligations or debt obligations, formed the basis for the credit debt pyramid that grew into the volcano of recession. Here is the high-level thinking for CDOs.
“Basically, the pricing of a synthetic CDO tranche that takes losses from K1 to K2 (with 0 _ K1 < K2 _ 1) of the reference portfolio works in the same way as the pricing of a 3 credit default swap. Let’s assume that 0 <= t0 < ... < tn”1 (1)denote the spread”. ( The Normal Inverse Gaussian Distribution for Synthetic CDO Pricing - Anna Kalemanova Bernd Schmid Ralf Werner.)
We accept this is the specialist terminology for a particular group of expertise. But at some point that shorthand needs to translate into a language that can be communicated and understood by brokers, investors and the rest of the financiers.
Neil Smith, the Chief Investment officer at Corham Capital explained:
“Simple fact is that things had become so complicated that only those people directly involved with the creation of these products knew what they were. CDO guys had every sales trick in the book. I mean it was the classic salesman techniques. If they hadn’t been selling CDOs they would have been selling second-hand cars. Their whole strategy was to make people feel silly if they didn’t understand the product. Everybody I came into contact with wanted to be invested in this market because it was deemed to be no risk – not low risk, but NO risk!”
Neil Smith describes Corham Capital as ‘an investment firm focusing on corporate-finance advice and alternative investment management’.
That’s three financiers talking plain English on one page. In our interview Neil added: “I do hate the kind of linguistic crucifixion that is rife in the financial services industry so I applaud the campaign.”
Neil Smith, the Chief Investment Officer at Corham Capital.
Well, the campaign applauds you for speaking out, Neil. It is the blind faith in the words of others, fuelled by egos, greed and the delusions of success that has led to the global trillions of debt. This is how the credit crunch looks to us:
CDOs + poor communications + unscrupulous intentions = £601.9 billion = UK debt
The World Debt Clock in New York is to have two additional digits added to allow the clock to track debt up to a quadrillion. It sounds more like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ every day.
We are not pretending that a plain English definition of CDOs would have saved us from recession. Complex information, instruction, processes or legislation is created gradually, so it can be dissected. In doing that, the structure is better understood and communicated. This is the plain English attempt for defining what is at the heart of CDOs - let us know what you think.
Collateralised debt, obligations (CDOs) are commitments to repay debts which are secured on assets.
And here is our glossary to explain the words within the name.
- Collateralise: to pledge assets as security for a debt, such as a loan.
- Debt: money owed by a person or organisation to some other person or organisation.
- Obligation: a commitment to repay a debt.
Using jargon and gobbledygook is a perfect smokescreen for a lack of knowledge, unclear thinking and defective information. The resulting ambiguity and confusion provides a breeding ground for lies, exaggerations, misinterpretations and a convenient hiding place for trouble.
The reputations of CDOs have been tarnished by those bankers who in their ignorance of the products or their desire to exploit the ‘golden egg’, created a mixed bag of good and bad products. The result was complicated and confused thinking.
The bankers are under the spotlight now, but there is no part of private – or public – sector activity that is not affected by unclear communications.
Black holes, climate change, polar melts – these are disasters over which our society has relatively little control. Being gobbled up by our own gobbledygook is something everyone can act upon today and everyday.