Beyond Bulls And Bears: A Wall Street Bestiary

Aug 12, 2011

Lions and vultures and bears, oh my.

Animal imagery has been used since the early 18th century to describe human behavior on Wall Street, says Charles R. Geisst, a professor of finance at Manhattan College and author of Wall Street: A History.

Pretty much everyone knows about bulls and bears, but the precise origins of the terms are not clear, says Geisst. "I always thought the real lesson was in the imagery; that is, the clash between the two was not one of expectations, as it is today, but one of actual battle between two parties trying to manipulate the market, ripping each other up in the process."

And there are other zoomorphic terms to learn as well. So since the world is keeping a close eye on the wild kingdom that is American finance these days, we thought it might be helpful to provide a field guide to some of the more common, and more rare, inhabitants.

After all, visualizing the stock market as a mangy menagerie of money managers and manglers somehow gives it more life, more art and, oddly enough, more humanity. Here then is a Wall Street abecedary bestiary. And remember: Buy sheep, sell deer.

Bear — On Wall Street, a bear is someone who "tears things down with his claws," explains Geisst. So in a "bear market", the ursine ones take over — shredding hopes and confidence with their claws by selling everything and bringing down prices across the board.

Bull — On the other paw, Geisst says, a bull describes "someone who charges ahead, goring anyone in his path." This herd-on-the-street mentality, called a "bull market," drives stock prices higher and bullies others into more investment.

Dove — A dove, according to Investopedia, is an economic policy guru who advocates for low interest rates, "believing that inflation and its negative effects will have a minimal impact on society."

Hawk — Among economic policy wonks, a hawk is that person who watches inflation with a keen bird's eye. The hawk prefers higher interest rates "in order to maintain reduced inflation," Investopedia explains.

Hog – This is the animal that bulls, bears and sheep shape-shift into "when they lose their senses," according to Alan Abelson, writing for Barron's in 2009. "Hogs have long occupied an important and unique place in Wall Street's bestiary."

Lion -- When the big-footed denizen of Wall Street — the chief executive officer at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley's chief financial officer — roars, people listen. And vice versa. In April 2010, a pride gathered to hear the president speak and The Sunday Times of London featured this headline: "Don't fight us on bank reforms, Obama tells lions of Wall Street." They put the lions in millions.

Scorpion — The term comes from Aesop's fable "The Scorpion and the Frog." Spoiler alert: The scorpion can't help but sting the frog because it's his nature. "The point here is that we all act surprised when it is revealed that Wall Street, once again, has stung the entire country in their quest for profits," explains Chris Martenson who writes a personal finance blog. " It is not something to be surprised at, but to expect. It is in their nature."

Sheep — The follower — not the leader — in the financial fold. "Ever wonder why fund managers can't beat the S&P 500? 'Cause they're sheep, and sheep get slaughtered," said Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, in the 1987 movie Wall Street.

Vulture — A seller of securitized viaticals, according to FireDogLake. "Sick people need money. Most folks have term [life insurance] policies that aren't worth anything to them while they live. They can't pay for health care with money that won't be there until they die. So, they sell their policies to Wall Street firms for something less than the face value but a good bit more than nothing. Wall Street wizards package them into bonds...Vulture Bonds."

Zebra — Someone who sticks to a plan, regardless of the market's vicissitudes, as alluded to in the New Investment Center on the MSN website beside this piece of advice: "Don't buy multiple funds run by the same manager." Because "zebras don't change their stripes." In other words, "managers rarely change their strategies."

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