Money Talks, But Does Anyone Understand What It’s Saying?
I always took a shine to language. When I was in second grade, Mrs. Peloso put me with the owl readers, the top animal ranking of us 8-year-olds with the finest reading comprehension, ahead of the bears, turtles, even dogs. Years later then, during the Great Recession, I became irritable — embarrassed by the fact that I could barely understand news reports of what happened to the economy. Why were so many people losing their jobs? Our savings? I would read a sentence over and over in the news, lips twitching, a doctor of letters from Stanford who could not comprehend what he was reading.
Feeling rather dumb, and caught flat-footed by my plunging IRA, I decided to immerse myself in the language of high finance. I designed my own crash course to investigate how the world of money talks. I interviewed men who captained private equity firms and quants who juiced hedge funds. I conversed with a retired board member of Bank of America and with whispery handlers who ran “family offices” — that is, wealthy individuals hired by wealthy individuals to provide concierge wealth management.
What I discovered is that nowhere is the power of language so stealthy and destructive as the world of high finance.
A decade after my savings plunged, the shenanigans of high finance continue. Money people continue to shill questionable financial products and to plaster over dubious behavior. Ten years ago it was an assault of abbreviations: ABS (asset-backed securities), CDO (collateralized-debt obligation), CDS (credit default swap). Casualties from the financial crisis pleaded for help and scrambled to understand the actual balance sheets that somehow contained their homes. Meanwhile, the wizards of high finance buried the bodies in those acronyms.
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Rich Benjamin is the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.” His research on high finance has been supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Co-published with The Los Angeles Times.