THE VIEW
The View
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The ‘F’ word and other profanities in business investment advice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 9:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 9:57am

The hip, casual trend in business started years ago in Silicon Valley, with millionaire and billionaire investors shuffling about in flip-flops and shorts. Then it spread to the hedge fund managers, who especially during the Internet bubble, sported goatees and wore jeans to the office, even as traditional money managers were stuck in the uniform of business suits.

Now a new milestone has been reached in entrepreneur and financial circles: casual dropping of the F-bomb in written communications with clients or investors. The English language’s most famous four-letter word seems to be the new standard of edginess in the business.

“You know what your retirement plan was a hundred years ago? You ****ing died,” Joshua Brown, a Wall Street investment advisor, wrote recently on his Reformed Broker blog.

Brown used these choice words to argue that comparing today’s valuations to historic ones was misleading, because, historically, asset prices did not have the buoy of the vast pools of retirement savings now sloshing around the globe. A fair point, perhaps, but one that would have been made differently even just a decade ago. At least in print.

It’s not like the world of trading was ever a particularly genteel milieu. It’s just that certain words were unlikely to show up in print.

Believe in your ****ing self. Stay up all ****ing night
Motivational poster hanging in the office of Apple’s design chief, Sir Jonathan Ive

The trend in rough and ready language probably partly reflects broader cultural influences in the West, especially in the United States, which had once tightly regulated profanity on television, however in the new cable and digital delivery era we have Breaking Bad instead of The Brady Bunch.

Certain types of profanity-laced investment advice might reflect the search for new financial-advisory markets among young generations.

Wall Street Oasis, for example, is a networking website aimed at financial sector wannabes in the millennial age group, and hosts content that ranges from updates on the latest banking regulations, to blogposts with titles such as: Banking is ****ing brutal.”

Even mainstream sites sometimes walk on the wilder side. Like the story on MSN.com’s Money pages with the headline: “How I Finally Got My Financial S*** Together at 35.” An article in the latest edition of the staid Economist started out using the English language’s most famous four-letter word, although in this case they were directly quoting Germaine Greer, the feminist.

It is doubtless that the digital age has changed boundaries and behavioural modes. Commenters in the digital universe have particularly upended the etiquette rules of the printed universe, and it seems the high cost of moderating a site has led many to just let anything fly.

Take the financial website Zerohedge, which says its goal is “to sceptically examine and, where necessary, attack the flaccid institution that financial journalism has become.”

The website’s own writers might not usually cross the line into outright profanity, but its readers’ comments are eyebrow-raising to say the least, and that fits in with the barroom brawl feel to the group’s digital presence.

Zerohedge has for instance recently taking a number of public potshots at Dennis Gartman, an avuncular midwestern American financial adviser whose daily newsletter is as likely to talk about corn futures as oil or stocks.

“It’s very simple: keep buying until Gartman turns bullish, then short,” Zerohedge said in a troll-tweet last month.

The digital daily Business Insider also doesn’t shy away from robust language. No irony there. Its co-founder, Henry Blodget, was famously exposed for using the acronym “POS” (for piece of ****) in private emails about Internet stocks he publicly showed much greater regard for as a Merrill Lynch analyst.

These websites can perhaps argue that their edginess reflects modern business more. As an example, Business Insider reprinted the contents of a motivational poster hanging in the office of Apple’s design chief, Sir Jonathan Ive.

This motivational spiel starts out by saying: “Believe in your ****ing self. Stay up all ****ing night” and continues on in the vein, using the word 24 times.

One wonders where Ive found this piece of moving rhetoric. Was it some lost chapter from Dale Carnegie, author of the 1930s self-help bible “How to Win Friends and Influence People”?

No, it is a very recent creation, turned out by a very modern design studio, as one can tell from its name. The company is called “Good ****ing Design Advice.”

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong based financial writer.