Demstyfing Today’s Most Popular Economic Terms

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Brett Arends, “A Tip for Financial Advisers: When Possible, Use English,” began with the statement, “If you’re in the finance industry, there’s a simple way to make your clients a lot happier: speak English.” But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

If a client has some level of knowledge about investments, explaining financial terms and strategies is doable. But when a client doesn’t, it can be very difficult to explain concepts even when you use plain English. The reality is that financial and economic terms are confusing—and not just to non-finance types. Plus, new financial terms crop up all the time to label or explain a new product or strategy (QE2 anyone?). It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Since the news is particularly ripe with financial terms right now (due to the dismal state of the U.S. economy), I’ll take a stab at explaining some commonly used examples of “Finglish.” Hopefully, this will increase your financial knowledge, or, at the very least, prevent your eyes from glazing over the next time you read “yield curve.”

Federal budget deficit: This term is in the news constantly and for good reason—the federal deficit is huge at $1.4 trillion. This means that the federal government is spending $1.4 trillion more than it is earning in revenues over a year. Why? Because entitlement spending, interest paid on the national debt and defense spending are much greater than revenue from taxes. And when the economy is weak, as it is now, tax collections are down.

Entitlement spending: Another ubiquitous concept, entitlement spending refers to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid outlays by the government. Even though we pay into this system during our working years, with rising costs of healthcare and longer lives, much more goes out than comes in. Our country’s leaders know that entitlement spending has got to be cut to fix the debt problem, but it’s a political minefield, and things will probably not change much until after the elections of 2012.

National debt: The amount of gross federal debt outstanding is an unable-to-imagine $14 trillion. The national debt increases or decreases based on the annual federal budget deficit or surplus. But a surplus has not been seen since 2003 and the deficit is now growing at a rate of $1 trillion a year. Together with the budget deficit, this debt was one of the reasons Standard & Poor’s gave when downgrading the United States’ credit outlook to “negative” on April 18, 2011.

Debt ceiling: The federal government is limited by law as to the total amount of debt it can issue. This limit is known as the debt ceiling. Currently the debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion, an amount that was technically exceeded on May 17. Fortunately, the government can continue to operate and pay its obligations through various accounting mechanisms and Congress will mostly likely vote to increase it.

And finally, quantitative easing (QE). This is a tool in the Fed’s arsenal to help the country out of a recession when all else fails. This is also referred to as “printing money.” The Fed tends to use QE when interest rates have already been lowered to near 0% levels (as they are now) and the economy doesn’t improve. Quantitative easing increases the money supply by flooding banks and other financial institutions with capital in an effort to promote increased lending and liquidity. The downside is that this could lead to inflation as there is still a fixed amount of goods for sale (too much money chasing too few goods leads to higher prices and inflation). The Fed will complete QE2 in June. There is much controversy over what effect this will have on interest rates, Many economists expect them to rise, causing another set of issues for the economic recovery.

This would be a good time to explain “yield curve” because when the Fed expands the money supply it also has the effect of lowering interest rates further out on the yield curve.  But I think this is enough of a Finglish tutorial for one blog post—I just know your eyes are glazing over. Stay tuned for the next Finglish lesson. I plan to write at least one blog post a month on the topic!

About the author

Cathy Curtis, CFP®

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