The Obfuscating (Incomprehensible) Language of Finance

girl-bullMany people – maybe most people – feel put off and insecure discussing the subjects of finance and economics. It’s almost like talking about serious health concerns with a doctor who only uses medical lingo. Many of us don’t have the training to understand, so we smile, weakly, and nod our heads. But whether it’s our health or finances, it’s not good enough to be ignorant – if we want to control our destinies, individually or as a society.

Even seemingly mundane terms like “austerity” within financial writing can be misleading or used subtly for political purposes. Is austerity simply a practical savings approach or does it imply deprivation to be endured under duress, affecting mostly the poor? It depends on your point of view.

Are we being taken for a ride? Maybe. Are we out of our league? Definitely. During the recent economic crisis, it was hard to believe that the entire financial ocean liner almost capsized because of certain “instruments” – mezzanine R.M.B.S. synthetic CDOs anyone? – that we had never heard of before.

Hiding the truth?

Sometimes the language of finance really is obscure and hides the truth. But a lot of this stuff really is complicated and difficult to understand.

For example, what is the effect of QE2 on M3? Or do I really want to know how bad bond-yield retardation can get?

And how about that scandal involving forward-settling E.T.F.s, or M.B.S.s, or subprime loans and REITs, CDOs and CDSs.? Shocking, but please don’t ask me to explain it!

As John Lanchester said in a recent New Yorker article, “The language of money is a powerful tool, and it is also a tool of power. Incomprehension is a form of consent. If we allow ourselves not to understand this language, we are signing off on the way the world works today…”

Explaining arcane language

So how can professional communicators, who write about financial subjects, help? Unless you’re writing exclusively for an audience of PhDs in economics or finance, you must represent the “unwashed masses” (I include myself) by explaining the arcane language of finance in simple terms.

As I said in an earlier post, a good writer who is ignorant about a subject has a great advantage: he or she can ask and answer fundamental questions – and use clear metaphors – to help the audience gain at least a foothold on the ladder of understanding.

In fact, I believe it’s our role – maybe our civic duty – to EXPLAIN, and not just pass along the jargon that we pretend to understand, but don’t.

This is why I like tackling financial assignments in my professional writing services business – whether it’s writing for a website, a marketing campaign, a ghost-written article, or a blog. Not being a financial expert gives me the chance to dig deep with a clear head.

One comment on “The Obfuscating (Incomprehensible) Language of Finance

  1. Economics is called the dismal science—because unlike all other sciences, it fails to make progress. All economic theory is just that, theory. I have worked in financial journalism for 20 years, and one thing is plain to me: no matter what level of education, no one understands how the economy will function. They only know how to describe it. It’s because so much of what goes on in the marketplace is based on human behavior and herd mentality. Not on logic or rational thinking. John Maynard Keynes described this as the “animal spirits” animating the market.

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