From “Bear Markets” to the “Wolf Economy”


Have you ever considered the absolute abundance of animal metaphors within business and financial jargon? Fat-cats, black swans, loan sharks, bull markets… In their strikingly illustrated “Bestiary of Business Terms”, journalists Dhruti Shah and Dominic Bailey take you on a veritable safari of examples. 

Speaking with writer Micheal Rosen on his Radio 4 show “Word of Mouth”, Dhruti Shah discussed the meanings and origins of some of these metaphors and reflected on why so many creatures have found a home within the business lexicon.

“Bear markets” and “bull markets” are the first of many intriguing terms she explains. A “bear market” is used to describe prolonged price declines which can be contrasted against the upwardly trending “bull markets”. A handy little mnemonic? Bears swipe down with their paws whereas bulls strike upwards with their horns.

Although the origins of the terms are unclear, Shah suggests that they may date back to the 1700s when bears and bulls were pitted against each other in staged fights. 

“Piggy banks” also have a surprisingly long history. The phrase dates back to the 1400s when small earthenware pots known as “pyggs” were used to store valuables. As time went on potters began fashioning these pots in the shape of the farmyard animal.

As unappealing as it may sound, a “cockroach portfolio” is used to describe a “bombproof” portfolio of reduced risk spread across equal parts cash, government bonds, high-yielding equities and gold. 

Mythical beasts are not to be excluded either. Ever heard of a “unicorn startup”? This is a private company valued at over US$1 billion. UK businesses reaching unicorn status in 2020 include GoustoOctopus EnergyGymShark and Cazoo.

In time to come it’s possible that we’ll consider the Coronavirus a “grey rhino”. This is a highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat”. Indeed, the likelihood of a pandemic has been flagged up for many years. Should national governments have had much more robust contingency plans already in place?

But why do these animal metaphors crop up quite so frequently in the financial world? Shah suggests because business is scary, but animals aren’t. We have a relationship with and affinity for animals. In this way, rather than the animal jargon making finance more exclusive, these phrases actually make it seem more approachable and even fun!

And obviously once the trend is set, even more animal terms will appear.

For Shah it’s important to open doors for people onto the world of business. She recalls a poll that found only 1 in 3 people globally said they understood financial concepts. Yet finance is something that impacts on all of our lives. How many of us really understand how our interest rates work? How our pension investments are managed?

Shah and Bailey’s book “Bear Markets and Beyond: A bestiary of business terms” is boldly and beautifully illustrated. You could consider it a coffee table book, enticing to pick up and the opposite of a dry financial glossary. Shah recounts children being drawn to the book by the imagery. She considers this important as it opens up conversation about business and finance, engendering a familiarity and removing fear around the topic from an early age.

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