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First there was Newspeak in George Orwell’s book 1984, intended to bend the thinking of the masses.

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Then there was doublespeak, derived from Newspeak, a deliberate disguising or distortion of meaning.

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And now there’s Fedspeak ~  wordy, vague and ambiguous.

Alan Greenspan was so good at using language that was confusing and meaningless, the term “Fedspeak” was coined to refer to his vague statements. According to Greenspan, acknowledged Fedspeak Master, using coded language often involves “purposeful obfuscation to avoid certain questions coming up, ones which you know you can’t answer.” Like those long-winded replies to direct questions posed during Congressional testimony, maybe? The four or five sentences which get increasingly obscure?

The Fed rarely, if ever, refers to actually printing money.  Using their carefully coded alternatives, they refer to  “augmenting the balance sheet” or “quantitative easing”.

There is a long tradition of explaining complex monetary policy with metaphors to get people to listen and make sense of it all.

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In Spunk and Bite, author Art Plotnik says metaphors heighten the meaning or clarity of a subject by relating it to something more vivid.  And that when the comparison tickles your fancy, it’s a winner.

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In 1955 Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, Boy Wonder of Wall Street, made popular the line that the duty of the Fed was ‘to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets good’.

The Fed likes to strut their figurative stuff when talking about the economy.  “It’s still wintry conditions. I know it feels like it should be May by now, and we should be able to take off the coat. But we well know in Minneapolis that it doesn’t always happen. And you should keep your coat on when it’s cold out.”

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Plotnik says that a good metaphor should be factory-fresh, unpredictable, economical and custom-fitted.  And for all that, it has the shelf life of about one use ~  “The Houston and Austin and Dallas commercial real estate markets are hotter than Scarlett Johansson.” Oh, those clever Feds.

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Critics questioned Mr. Bernanke about the fragile condition of the economy. His retort: “At this point, the patient ought to be out of the hospital and playing baseball with its kids.”

The Fed day-trades in language, gambling a hot image will spark our overloaded and under-stimulated brains.  Attention is what they want, so they aim to be flashy, edgy, and bold.

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But they should to listen to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. She cautions against excess, warns that too many “jolts of imagery may end up like a carnival ride: the reader has been lurched and has laughed, has been all but whiplashed, but has gotten nowhere”.

Good metaphors make finance a skosh more fun.  But too many metaphors, well, they just sort of—spoil the broth.

Toni 7/10/13

4 thoughts on “PUNCH BOWLS, COATS, AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON

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