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Written by Keith Schwanz

From his column It's Your Money

bull and bearWe pour metaphors into everyday conversations, often without awareness that we do so. A grandmother laughs as her “little monkey” climbs the play castle at the park. Of course, she does not believe her progeny is an actual ape, but she does see similarities between the active involvement of her granddaughter at play and that of frolicking primates at the zoo.

Geoff Smith, an English professor at the University of Hong Kong, studied how newspapers and television reported on the Hong Kong financial markets during the first several months of 1994. As might be expected, Smith found instances of the two metaphorical animals often used to describe the stock market: bull and bear. In one article, the reporter said the “bears came out of the woods.” Sometimes Smith found references to gravity: the market was in “free fall,” “lost its footing,” “dropped like a brick.” Other images were borrowed from armies in conflict: “led the charge,” “steady retreat,” “badly wounded economy.”

I did my own review. The first article I examined discussed the financial condition of department stores and stated that the first quarter in 2017 was an economic “disaster.” Retailers were reported as “battered” with “more pain” coming. One analyst suggested that retailers are “dying.” Sales have “slipped” and retail stocks have “crashed.” Just this one article was packed with metaphors.

A metaphor utilizes a known image to describe something less clear. The average investor, for example, may not make sense of the price/earnings ratio, a number used in financial analysis, but immediately has a general impression if a metaphor is used. The image in some way explains what is not easily understood.

Michael Morris, a psychology professor at Columbia University, also looked at the metaphors used to describe financial issues. Morris distinguished between “object” and “agent” metaphors. Suppose you are on a mountain hike, Morris wrote, and you see a rock rolling downward. The rock is not alive (an “object”) and must have started rolling because of an external force. In contrast, if you see something moving up the hill, Morris continued, you would assume that a living force (an “agent”) is behind the movement.“Object” metaphors are passive, inanimate, and subject to influence from external sources. “Agent” metaphors are active and animated from an internal source of power. It does not take any effort to “fall” but to “climb” requires lively engagement. Morris noticed a bias in the news stories. Reporters tended to use “object” metaphors when economic indicators decreased. Stocks were said to be “dropping” or “plunging.” When economic indicators increased, reporters tended to use “agent” metaphors. Stocks were said to be “climbing” or “soaring.”

Sterile Information vs. Vibrant Images

When it comes to personal finance, sometimes the most colorful images interfere with careful analysis and prudent decision making.

I love imaginative use of language. In the church, we use metaphors in an attempt to describe the indescribable. Scholars have written books on the images used in the Bible, everything from how Aaron’s rod serves as a sign of God’s presence, to Zion as representing God’s eternal reign of peace. Consider the songs we sing in worship. The hymn begins, “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart, Wean it from earth.” The hymn writer recognized something about weaning that helped him express the movement toward full dependence on God. The hymn closes with this phrase: “My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.” Numerous biblical passages come to mind in that word picture.

In almost every phrase of this hymn, the writer uses a metaphor. The word pictures help us begin to explore the transcendence of God who is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. When used in Christian worship, metaphors provide a way for us to talk about spiritual reality in ways that otherwise would remain unspoken. Biblical imagery is a valuable part of our language in worship.

But when it comes to personal finance, sometimes the most colorful images interfere with careful analysis and prudent decision making. In essence, a metaphor is a little story. Economic metaphors suggest an explanation of the economic context and imply the story behind the numbers.

Morris revealed a bias in the metaphors used to describe economic conditions, and that bias could have an adverse influence on a person. An explanation through “object” metaphors may prompt an investor to think that nothing can be done. The use of “agent” metaphors, on the other hand, may prompt a person to an unwarranted exuberance.

The prudent person will identify when metaphoric language is being used in personal finance. In reading that “the market was very nervous,” it is helpful to recognize that the financial market is being described in human terms. An investor might be nervous, but an inanimate thing like a stock market has no sensitivities. Careful attention to the figurative language can catch exaggeration in a statement like “another day of market carnage” when in fact the decline was only about one-half of one percent.

I’m a writer—I like making words sing. I’m a student of hymns—I find great delight in creative expressions of things that matter most. But this love of literary elements such as metaphor does not carry across to issues of personal finance. For that I want sterile information, not vibrant images.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor. He has served as a pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.

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