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A Devil's Dictionary of Finance | The Nation

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A Devil's Dictionary of Finance

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Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of A Devil's Dictionary of Business, now in paperback.

About the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

Also by the Author

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These days, even people who pay attention only to gallery openings and baseball scores are suddenly paying attention to what's happening on Wall Street. Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are crafting financial instruments the likes of which have never been seen by the industry, the consumer or the Federal Reserve. As mortgages melt down, the market gyrates, and the regulators make their pronouncements, here is a short list of some of the business terms and their meanings that are driving our wild financial ride.

Additional Capital

: A financial lifesaver for banks and investment houses swamped by losses and the threat of bankruptcy. The additional capital raised to cover the emergency is obtained by printing and selling more stock, thus lessening the value of the stock already in existence.

Raising money under these circumstances is very expensive and sometimes involves a guarantee that the buyers of the new stock will receive some kind of dividend before anybody else gets paid--an additional sock in the nose to the current stockholders. The need to raise additional capital is not always due to the stupidity and incompetence of the people running the company. Sometimes it's for such profitable purposes as buying new machinery or expanding the factory (back in the days when we had factories).

Basil II

: Not to be confused with a medieval king of Bulgaria or a Byzantine emperor. The Basil II accords are an international agreement on banking practices designed to prevent--guess what? A worldwide banking crisis. Heavy-money players such as the United States and the EU are signatories to the agreement, whose provisions nobody quite understands and which nobody has been able to put into effect, but which everybody agrees are necessary to maintain the present high level of world prosperity.

Blank Check Company

: A company with a pot of money and no business. First, you start a company. Second, you flush a covey of slap-happy investors who have lost the sense they were born with. After you have their money, you go looking for some kind of business for the company to get into. Compare a blank-checker with the men and women who tart up, go to the ATM to withdraw money and then head to a pickup bar. By the end of the evening some of them are in business. Most are not.

Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO)

: Take a bunch of commercial loans for which there is collateral of some kind or other, smoosh them together into one big loan or bond and voilà! You have a CDO. Whether you want the CDO depends on how good the underlying loans and collateral are. It appears that many of the investment bankers selling CDOs were too busy buying houses in the Hamptons to find out.

Counterparty

: The name for the other guy or institution in a deal, otherwise known as he who is left holding the bag. If you lend me $10, we are each counterparties to the loan. A committee has been formed to find out why this word is needed.

Credit Default Swap

: Warren Buffett is supposed to have called credit default swaps and their kinky kindred arrangements "financial weapons of mass destruction." (Also see Liquidity Put.)

A credit default swap works this way: Company A gets a loan, usually in the form of a bond, from Company B, but Company B worries that Company A may not pay the loan when it comes due. So Company B makes a deal with Company C. In return for regular payments, Company C will make good any loses suffered by Company B in case Company A welches on the deal.

So a credit default swap is a form of insurance... but if Company B has a mind to, it can buy a dozen or more credit swaps from Company C or some other entity. In the event that Company A fails to pay back the money, Company B stands to make a huge profit. Worse yet, Companies H and M, which had nothing to do with the deal, can nevertheless do a credit default swap based on whether or not Company A lives up to its promise to repay Company B.

Credit default swap mutations, immutations, transmutations, remutations and permutations are endless and perilous. At present an estimated $4.5 trillion in credit default swaps is swirling around in financial outer space. If they land in a black hole, the business world will end with a bang. Then comes the whimper.

Doges of Wall Street and Greenwich, Connecticut

: These are the 5,000-6,000 people who sit atop the nation's major financial institutions, banks, hedge funds, etc. Although small in number, the few hundred operations they run garnered more than one-quarter of all the profits made by all other American companies last year. (So lush are the pickings that lesser workers in finance make half as much as people doing the same thing in other industries.)

If the Doges of Wall Street and Greenwich, Connecticut, are not the Masters of the Universe Tom Wolfe dubbed them at about the time they led the United States into the savings and loan debacle, they have at least had the power to free themselves of almost all regulatory restraint. In the process, they have caused two more financial crises, which have brought America to a precarious, trembling balance on the edge of catastrophe.

"The economy is fundamentally sound,"

or

"The worst is behind us,"

or

"We've hit the bottom, and it's uphill from now on"

: Head for the hills.

Fair Disclosure Rule

: A government rule requiring a company to make information about its prospects available to the larger investing public and Wall Street stock analysts at the same time.

The rule is part of the never-ending effort to prevent people from cashing in on exclusive information. Since successful stock-picking is impossible without secret inside information, you may be sure the cheaters are finding new forms of unfair advantage even as you read this.

Form 4506T

: The IRS form to be signed by home buyers giving mortgage lenders the authority to look at the buyers' income tax returns to verify their income and make sure they can afford the mortgage. Had form 4506T been used by lenders during the housing boom, there would have been a much smaller housing bubble and therefore a smaller crash. Law enforcement agencies are investigating why lenders did not ascertain the credit-worthiness of borrowers and whether the failure to do so constitutes fraud and/or actionable negligence.

Liquidity Put

: This is a promise by a firm selling a CDO (for which see above) or MBO (see below) to repurchase an item in case the buyer cannot sell it to somebody else for the original purchase price.

Originally the idea for securitizing or bundling mortgage or other debt into bonds and then selling the bonds was that if enough were sold to a broad enough spectrum of people, the risk would be spread so far and so thin that a lot of people would get nicked for a little loss, but nobody would get seriously hurt, if home buyers welched on their payments.

With liquidity puts, the risk really is not spread around--it remains with the sellers. And now the investment banks that did the selling are on the hook for billions of bucks.

Why would they do something that looks, in the light of what has happened, so dumb even a Wall Streeter should have known better? The answer probably is that they were so greedy for sales they threw in the repurchase promise confident that they had all the angles figured so perfectly that they could not get burned.

Mortgage-Backed Security (MBO)

: Akin to CDOs are MBOs, many of which, of late, are emitting a decidedly unpleasant odor.

Ninja Loan

: This has nothing to do with black-clad fighters of fourteenth-century Japan. They were sometimes rash but never as idiotically greedy as the modern mortgage brokers who made such loans, meaning mortgages given to people with no income, no job and no assets.

Punch Bowl

: A metaphor for easy money and the inflation, speculation, unemployment and hard times easy money brings in its wake.

William McChesney Martin, the Eisenhower- and Kennedy-era chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, is remembered for saying that the Fed must "take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going." He meant sucking money out of the economy when too much of it is starting to blow bubbles, à la Alan Greenspan's technology bubble of 2000 and his real estate bubble of 2003-07, a bubble so large it defied the laws of physics.

During most of Martin's time the dollar was worth 100 cents and a prosperous and growing nation was spared the roller-coaster, boom-and-bust economics that have become the norm since he left office. In the end, Martin gave in to political pressure from the White House to pay for the Vietnam War; he left office in 1970 with inflation at a ruinous 6 percent and rising by the minute.

Recession

: The word may have come into use around 1929 as a euphemism for the harsher "panic," the nineteenth-century term for when the arrows on the graphs start moving south. By the 1950s it was preferred to "depression," a word that came to be so terrifying it is now used only in connection with the 1930s. The term "crash" is never, ever used in decent business circles.

Since business depends on optimism and suspension of skepticism, expressions suggesting things may be somewhat sub-hunky-dory are of great concern. Hence such cutesy locutions as "the R word," or namby-pambyisms such as "slowdown," "downturn," "pullback," "slump" and "pause."

Risk Management

: The conviction that young men and women with PhDs in mathematics can write formulas for such derivatives as

SIVs

(see below) so that they are financially fail-safe. It was believed until late 2007 that risk could be so well managed that it would be possible to lend billions of dollars to deadbeats, would-be bankrupts, near paupers, irresponsible speculators, doddering old people, uninformed immigrants, drunks and people seeking funds for a South American vacation and still make a profit.

Silo

: A corporate subsidiary company that operates on its own without communication or coordination with other subsidiaries or control by corporate headquarters. A silo is the financial equivalent of a "stovepipe," the word used to describe the dozen or so side-by-side law enforcement, counterintelligence and spy agencies that failed to share vital information before 9/11. Citigroup is presently used as the example of a corporation suffering from extreme silo-itis. In the mid-1990s what had been the First National City Bank of New York, founded in 1812, was merged with a gallimaufry of companies such as Smith Barney, Primerica, Aetna and Salomon Brothers, among others. The result is a $2 trillion organization with more than 350,000 employees, none of whose silos seem to know what the other silos are up to. Citigroup does not even have a unified internal computer system; getting one will cost an estimated $3 billion and take five years to install. Thanks to bad decisions or lack of coordination or poor direction at the top, Citi's silos--along with the attached barns and livestock--have been badly burned by the subprime mortgage crisis. To keep afloat, Citi had to solicit a multibillion-dollar infusion from Abu Dhabi, presumably because it could not get the money from anybody in America.

Structured Investment Vehicle (SIV)

: SIV drivers have been known to vanish when hit by one of Wall Street's IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The vehicle is inherently risky.

A financial institution buys a bunch of bonds that pay a fixed rate of interest and may take twenty years to mature. ("Mature" is finance lingo for the date when the bonds pay back the principal.) The institution buying the bonds must borrow to pay for them, and if it is to make money on this deal, it must pay less interest than it is receiving from the bonds. It has to borrow short-term loans because they generally carry lower interest rates. Though the difference between what the bonds pay the institution and what the institution must pay on the short-term loans is only .25 percent, if the money involved is in the billions, an SIV can be very profitable.

It can also blow up in your face. If the interest rates on the short-term loans suddenly jump up or there are no short-term loans to be had, the SIV swerves off Prosperity Highway and smashes into a tree, which is what happened beginning in late 2007.

Toxic Waste

: A piece of financial crap. This is Wall Street slang for a security so lousy that only an older person suffering from age-related macular degeneration with second-stage Alzheimer's on Social Security could be induced to buy it.

Variable Pricing

: The irksome but indispensable practice of charging more when demand is highest and less when it is lowest. Electrical utilities have been using variable pricing in one form or another for 100 years. Airlines do it and operators of toll roads are beginning to do it. Your neighborhood tavern, with its happy-hour special, is practicing an inebriated form of variable pricing.

Variable pricing is a means to achieve what is called "load balancing," by charging more to discourage everybody from using a service at peak demand time. Hence airline tickets cost less for off-hours flights and more for the convenient morning and afternoon departures. If everybody flew at the same time, airports would have to be tripled in size, airlines would have to buy four times as many planes and the cost of tickets would leap commensurately.

People who find variable pricing discriminatory, unfair and/or biased racially, religiously or by social class or sexual orientation are advised to look into the purchase of private jets, a form of transportation the pricing for which is invariable and invariably high. (Also see Zone Pricing.)

VIX

: It sounds like Vicks VapoRub, the gooey substance the great grandmothers of America used to rub on the chests of children with flu. Vicks may be more useful than VIX, which is the ticker symbol for Volatility Index, another Wall Street will o' the wisp. Thanks to mathematical abracadabra, VIX is believed to predict how fast and how violently the price of stocks will gyrate up and down in the coming thirty-day period.

The theory is, the greater the ups and downs, the more dangerous the market is for investor sheep. Those are the human ovines who have talked themselves into believing that they know how to buy a share of stock when it's cheap and sell it when it is expensive.

A small class of little-known investors exist who make money regardless of the direction the stock is heading in. You are not one of them.

Zone Pricing

: Equality does not exist in business unless thrust on it from the outside. All customers are not equal, so do not appeal to the "rights of man" when you learn that a drug costs more in America than it does in Canada. Zone pricing means that things have different prices in different places. It is a geographical application of charging what the traffic will bear, depending on where the traffic is. (Also see Variable Pricing.)

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