Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Long and Short of Cornering the Market in Global Finance Lingo

I'm Adam Phillips for WORDMASTER, sitting in for Roseanne Skirble and Avi Arditti. Today we look at the jargon of international finance. With giant American corporations leading the drive toward the globalization of business, English has become the de facto international language of finance.

SALIH NEFTCI: "Financial market terminology is only in English. If you don't speak English, you basically cannot do it."

That's financial economics professor Salih Neftci, who is designing a groundbreaking new program in Global Finance for the New School in New York City. Like English itself, Neftci is all over the globe, with teaching and other responsibilities in China, the United States and Europe.

SALIH NEFTCI: "Even if you speak French, Spanish, German or Mandarin - which are great languages! - finance is only English. It's actually very mundane English. It's not going to make you look like a very big intellectual. But it has its purpose and it works. The purpose is to make money the best way. The notion of hedging, for example."

Hedging, Neftci explains, is what banks and other businesses do to offset the risk that the price of their asset will rise or fall contrary to their wishes. Nefcti notes that financiers often take seemingly contrary positions to protect their assets.

SALIH NEFTCI: "A position is a bet. I bet that the oil price will go up. So I bought oil. Now I look at the conditions. It doesn't look that good. It's best to get out before your losses accumulate. Then you unwind the position. That's what means: unwind the position. Make the position reverse, and get out of your commitment."

It all depends on whether investors are facing a bull market or a bear market. A bull market is a sustained period in which investment prices rise higher than their historical average. A bear market means investment prices are lower. Of course one can diversify one's strategy -- that is, spread out one's risks. A bearish spread is one that bets that the price of a security will decline, and a bullish spread is a bet that the price will rise.

A butterfly spread mixes both bull and bear. Whichever strategy is adopted, Salih Nefcti says financial people don't usually engage in punting.

SALIH NEFTCI: "You think [for example that] oil prices are going up [and] you buy oil. That's punting. You just take pure speculation. Usually they don't do that. They buy something; they sell something. For example, they're buying Indian stocks [and] they are selling Chinese stocks. They can either do it with cash, or they can do it just by positioning themselves, which is long-short. So I am long India, I am short China.'"

Long and short are specialized forms of buying and selling.

SALIH NEFTCI: "Suppose you think something is going up, some asset like stocks. There are two ways to do it. You put your hand in your pocket, and get the money. You give your money. You get the asset. Going long is not that.

"Going long is, I go to a broker and say 'I will buy it in one month.' I sign the contract; I don't even put the deposit [down], but I committed myself. If during this one month the value goes up, I don't even have to buy it. I just sort of agree on getting the difference in the price. 'Long' and 'short,' these are very quick words, but that is why it is useful. Because it is very practical."

The future will always be an abstraction until it becomes the present. At the end of the day, world agricultural markets still deal with down-to-earth physical things that we depend on or enjoy. Finding that balance between future possibilities and present realities can help a financier to corner the market in some so-called soft commodities like sugar, salt, cotton or coffee.

SALIH NEFTCI: "Cornering the market means I went on the market, I got promises from people to deliver to me something, say coffee, at the same time I bought all the physical coffee. Notice I am buying the promise, but I am also buying the coffee. So when it the time comes to deliver, they're not going to be able to find it. And then coffee prices will go up and I am the one who is holding coffee, so I benefit. It's illegal in America. If the feds nail you [charge you] with that, well, it's going to be pretty bad."

Indeed, like international finance itself, the specialized English terms used by the men and women who trade in the international marketplace are complex. However, Nefcti says that finance people like to keep it all very simple:

SALIH NEFTCI: "Unfortunately, financial markets have one dimension. They are not interested in losers. They are only interested in winners!"

Those are terms almost anyone can understand. For WORDMASTER, I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.