The world of financial markets with its fierce competition between investors can be a wild and dangerous place. It’s all about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and living by ‘the rules of the jungle’. Not surprisingly, there are lots of expressions connected with animals that we use to describe this competitive world: just think of the film The Wolf of Wall Street. Writer Dhruti Shah and artist Dominic Bailey have collected over eighty animal-based expressions connected with business in an illustrated book called Bear Markets and Beyond: A Bestiary of Business Terms.

Going down, going up

Shah, who doesn’t have an economics background herself, said she wanted to demystify the language of business and finance because many people, including native English speakers, don’t really understand the terminology. So, let’s start with the ‘bear market’ of the book’s title. Shah explains that a financial market is called a ‘bear market’ if it loses 20 per cent of its value. The commonly-held belief is that this metaphor for the movement of the market is derived from the way a bear attacks its opponent with a downward swipe of its paws. Alternatively, the opposite of a ‘bear market’ is a ‘bull market’, one in which value is going up. This is because a bull attacks by  thrusting its horns up into the air. Thus: ‘bear investors’ are those who invest in a declining market, while ‘bull investors’ buy when the market is rising.

Getting away from it all

Although this is a collection of business terms, many of the expressions included are common ones and can be useful in everyday contexts too. The ‘rat race’ for example, describes urban life, where people run around like rats, always frenetic and brutally competitive, but not clear as to why.

More useful than you think

Another expression in the book is quite new: ‘yak shaving’. According to Shah, farmers who own yaks do sometimes have to shave them: a time-consuming, unrewarding process! In business or in our day-to-day lives ‘yak shaving’ means doing those little tasks that take up our time and energy and seem pointless, but sometimes end up being useful after all.

An ancient warning

While the expression ‘yak-shaving’ is only a few years old, some of the animal idioms go back centuries or even millennia. The story of the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs’ is common around the world but may have come originally from the Greek storyteller Aesop. The goose’s golden eggs bring great wealth to the farmer who owns her. But then the farmer gets greedy and kills the goose, believing there must be a big piece of gold inside her. In fact, there’s nothing there and with the goose dead there are no more golden eggs either. It’s a useful warning to investors that looking for short-term gain can mean big long-term losses.

Financial felines

If you throw a dead cat out of the window, it’s quite possible that it will bounce. Does this mean that the cat is alive again? Not at all. It just means that cat corpses bounce. And the same thing can happen with the economy. When an economy is in decline, sometimes there’s a short-term recovery. Things seem more positive but then the decline continues. The cat’s still dead. It was just a ‘dead cat bounce’. There are various live cats wandering around the financial jungle, too. The most common are the ‘fat cats’. These are people with lots of money who use other people’s work to make themselves even richer.

Look out!

We’ve already mentioned the ‘wolf’ of Wall Street but there are other predators to look out for in the world of business. A ‘loan shark’, for example, is someone who lends money, usually to people who are desperate, and then charges them very high rates of interest. A ‘vulture investor’ is one who buys up assets at a very cheap price from a company or even a country that is failing, hoping to make big money from them later.   

Behavioural economics

The term ‘meerkat investor’ is just one of many animal expressions from the field of behavioural economics. Meerkats are busy creatures, hyper vigilant, and always checking for danger. And ‘meerkat investors’ are the same, constantly checking their investments. By contrast, some investors prefer not to think too much about their investments when the news is bad. This is the ‘ostrich effect’. The ostrich is traditionally thought to bury its head in the sand when it senses danger. Then, there is the concept of the ‘lemming investor’, another classic of behavioural economics, which is based on the myth that lemmings always copy the behaviour of the group, even if that means committing mass suicide. A lemming investor is one who blindly follows other investors, even if their actions lead to big losses.

There are a lot more animal expressions to discover in the book, both common and obscure,from ‘cash-cows’ and ‘vomiting camels’ to ‘turtle trading’ and ‘tiger economies’. And, of course, the good old ‘piggy bank’.