Financial language is the language used in business, primarily the language used by investors. A number of investors currently have problems with understanding their financial advisors due to the special language that they speak. There are a number of factors that contribute to this lack of understanding. One of the most important factors is the use of specialized terms and the industry jargon by financial planners and advisors, though the reasons for this usage are also different (some are afraid of getting fired because of seeming non-professional, while the others are just comfortable with such language).
This communication gap makes it necessary to research the problem of popular financial language in the USA, understand the roots of this problem, its peculiarities, and, possibly, offer the ways to solve it. This dissertation is going to deal with these and a range of other important issues that the popular financial language in the USA may touch upon.
Common language makes communication between people of different cultural backgrounds easier. Similarly, people who speak the same language in the world of business have more chances to carry out business operations effectively. Besides, using business language correctly allows establishing strong relations with the business partners and sustaining the reputation of the organization one works for (Taylor 47).
Over the past centuries, the business has developed its own vocabulary with the help of which people working in different business spheres encode their messages (Frame 133). Quite often, their language seems foreign to those who know nothing about the business world. This is complicated by the fact that a number of business areas speak different varieties of business languages (Cypres vi). The focus of this dissertation will be the sphere of finances where the use of specific language seems to be the most complicated, which is currently aggravated by the fact that a number of players in this business area do not possess sufficient knowledge with regards to financial language.
Background of the Problem
‘Financial Language’ Definition
Before discussing the financial language currently used in the United States, it is worth identifying what financial language is in general. Basically, financial language is a language of financial reporting (Benston 3), which means that it involves a set of words and word combinations with the help of which such reports are compiled. Financial reporting is crucial for the effectiveness of business transactions performed by a country (Eli 6), which is why its accuracy should be the number one priority for all organizations.
Basing on this necessity, there is a need for all the people dealing with financial reporting to be financially literate, or to possess the ability “to read and understand basic financial statements” (McDaniel and Maines 140).
The constituents of financial reports are numerous; apart from a range of elements, they include “a balance sheet, income statement of cash flows, […] financial statement footnotes, along with certifications from managers and auditors about the company’s proper use of financial reporting conventions and the effectiveness of the company’s controls over the financial reporting process” (Haskins 4). There is no doubt that dealing with such reports requires everybody working with finances to know finance terminology well.
What is the finance terminology all about then? This is the terminology that CFOs are required to know; consequently, everybody working with CFOs (and these are the majority of people involved in finances) are expected to understand this terminology and to express their ideas using specific financial terms (Roulstone and Phillips 208).
These terms include the following: ROI, hurdle rate, IRR, profit margin, depreciation, fiscal, SOX, P&L statement, top line, bottom line, CGS, stock dividends, net income available to shareholders, and a number of other terms and abbreviations (Routh 185) (explanation for some of these terms will be given in the subsequent sections of this study). This is, however, only a tiny part of all the terms that financial terminology involves. In reality, a person working in the financial sector should be aware of the thousands of terms related to the language of finance.
This language of finance involves, above all the language of Finance and Accounting Departments that are present in any organization. Understanding the importance of each of these departments helps to realize the importance of financial language as such. Thus, the Finance Department of any organization deals with such areas as “insurance and risk management, contract administration and pricing, internal auditing, investor relations [and is involved in such] activities like mergers and acquisitions, attracting investors to a company seeking outside capital, and internal management of public stock offerings” (Siciliano 5).
As far as any Accounting Department is concerned, it deals primarily with keeping the records of accounting transactions (Needles, Powers, and Crosson 308). Each of these departments employs a wide range of people who deal with different aspects of accounting and finance management. Hence is the diversity of terminology with which financial language operates with. Therefore, roughly, financial language may be defined as a complex of specialized terms that are used by people involved in accounting and financial management whose work is related to financial reports and other financial documents.
Origin of Financial Language: The Use of Financial Language in Banking and Investment Industries
Among all the types of businesses, financial businesses require the knowledge of financial language most of all. Different banks, as well as companies that make profits on the investments, belong to such businesses. Therefore, two financial industry sectors that strongly depend on the use of financial terminology are the banking industry and the investment industry. Apart from these, of course, there is also a range of other sectors that operate with different financial terms, but banks and investment companies are among those that utilize specialized financial terminology most often and heavily depend on its appropriate comprehension (Epstein, Nach, and Bragg 1139). Both these industry sectors are well-developed at the present century, but there are still people even within them that cannot apply the majority of financial terms.
The existence of central banking in the United States, in particular, dates back to the end of the 18th century when the first bank, the Bank of North America was open in 1782. Since then, the first financial terms with regards to the banking systems started to be utilized. It is remarkable, however, that “the terms and expressions that bankers use to communicate with each other and those outside the industry have similarly changed as banks have entered new lines of business and new technologies have appeared” (American Bankers Association v). This is connected with the rapid development of the banking system in the United States.
Over the decades following the establishment of the Bank of North America, there also emerged the First Bank of the United States, the Second Bank of the United States, and a number of national banks the amount of which equaled 1,500 by 1865 (Juglar 93). At present, the banking industry widely applies such terms as acceleration, bank statement, credit card, debit card, credit record, cash credit, letter of credit, overdraft, syndication, BGC (bank giro credit), and other terms (Benedict and Elliot 171). However, despite the availability of resources and banking terms dictionaries there still remain people in and outside the banking industry who cannot freely operate with its language.
As far as the investment industry is concerned, it has also developed its own terminology over the period of its existence. The investment industry as such is extremely broad this is why understanding its basic concepts is crucial for everyone involved in it. The importance of this knowledge lies in minimizing the risks when making investments and maximizing returns. The terms that are used most widely in the modern U.S. investment industry are annual return, capital gains, bull market, blue-chip, maturity, liquidity, time horizon, and a number of others (Guides to Independence 1).
Just like in the case with the banking industry, there are a number of people within the industry whose knowledge of these and other terms is more than insufficient and who rely on their financial planners and advisors when having to deal with investments.
Factors Influencing the Use of Financial Language
At present, the majority of people who are involved in banking and investment industries have poor financial language and cannot at all understand important financial terms, thus, being forced to seek financial advisors (Hirt, Block, and Basu 138). Nevertheless, even here they face problems with making their investments owing to the communication gap between them and their advisors. This gap has emerged owing to three major factors that contribute to a misunderstanding between these two parties. These factors are only slightly related to the specifics of financial language and the efforts taken for learning it; instead, those are human factors that are easy to deal with in order to eliminate this misunderstanding between the investors and their advisors.
First of all, financial planners and advisors, like all people involved in a particular industry, develop their own jargon which they use for communication. This jargon cannot always be understood by the investors, which often serves as a reason for their losses:
Almost three-quarters of those surveyed feel financial professionals use more jargon than their car mechanic, and more than half feel financial professionals use more jargon than doctors. About eight in 10 believe their car insurance policy is easier to understand than a mutual fund prospectus, and 79% say the same about prescription drug inserts […] More than half (52%) of the adults surveyed say they’d made an investment with a bad outcome – like owing unexpected taxes or paying an early withdrawal penalty – because they felt “confused by” or “didn’t understand” an investment. (Hisey para. 7)
At this, half of the people who do not understand the financial jargon are convinced that it is used “to make the consumer feel less confident that they can handle their own finances” (Hisey 11). Thus, jargon is one of the most important factors that contribute to widening the communication gap between investors and financial advisors.
Another important factor is the deliberate use of specialized terms in order to show one’s professionalism. West and Anthony 2000 emphasize that “some advisors purposely use complex language, thinking they elevate themselves in the eyes of the client” (9). In reality, however, such behavior is not welcomed by clients because they often are intimidated by their extreme professionalism and do not wish to feel uncomfortable or confused when asking advice from their financial planners. This often leads to the clients having to seek out new advisors. Therefore, the desire to show professionalism on the part of financial planners and advisors also contributes to the communication gap between them and their clients.
The final contributing factor is the fear of being fired in case a financial advisor has made a mistake due to which the client suffered losses. For instance, it is more beneficial for the financial advisor to confuse the investor with the unknown for the latter terms (especially if the advisor is aware of the client’s ignorance of financial language) than acknowledge his/her fault in the investor’s significant decline in assets.
For instance, the advisor can use a variety of microeconomic and macro-economic terms to blame the global economy when explaining the reasons for this decline and the investor will believe this, whereas the confession in giving bad advice will lead to the financial advisor’s termination of employment. In this way, the use of financial language is predetermined not only by the development of banking and investment industries but by the desire of some people to stay within these industries or to show their professionalism.
Definition of Terms
Some financial terms used in this study may be different to comprehend. At the same time, there is no need to explain all the terms that have been referred to indirectly. Thus, the explanation will be given to the concepts that will be met in the direct research further discussed in the Results and Discussion sections. First of all, the most important terms used were ROI (which stands for return-on-investments) and PM (profit margin).
These are two main controls that are used for overall organizational efficiency (Dust 99). At this, ROI is the basic performance measure that allows calculating how efficient the investment has been, while PM is a measure of profitability that allows estimating which profit exactly the investor obtains from the investment. Another important concept to define is depreciation. This term is used to denote a decline in the value of an investment (“Financial Linguo” 98).
One more term to define is IRR, which is the internal rate of return, or the discount rate that makes the value of cash flows equal to zero (the higher is IRR of the project, the more desirable it is to undertake it). Furthermore, SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) is an extremely important U.S. Federal Law that was adopted to prevent false financial reporting (Routh 191). No less important in accounting, in particular, is the P&L (profit and Loss) Statement which reflects how successful the company is financially (this report is prepared by the CEO annually).
There are also two important terms related to the P&L Statement, the top line of this statement, which presents the information about the company’s corporate sale revenue for the reported period, and the bottom line of the statement which presents the information about the profits obtained by the company for the reported period (Routh 192).
Additionally, some other terms specifically related to the banking and investment industries are also worth defining. For instance, the overdraft is the term used to denote “the situation where the entity draws out from its bank more than the amount it had in its current account with the bank” (Benedict and Elliot 173) (in other words, an individual or an organization draws more money from the account that is actually there). One more interesting abbreviation to explain with regards to banking terms is BGC, or bank giro credit, which is a transaction in the course of which the funds are transferred directly to the beneficiary’s account (for instance, to make payment in advance).
Some of the terms related to investment, in particular, are blue-chip, which is a company worth investing in because it is financially sound, time horizon, which is a time period during which an investment can be made (it is liquidated if the period has expired), and bull market, a prolonged period during which the price for investment rises faster than usually. These are the most widely used concepts in the financial language which everyone dealing with finances is expected to know.
Purpose of the Study
Taking into account the theoretical background, the purpose of this study needs to be defined. It has been discovered that certain factors affect the use of financial language among people involved in the financial industry, but there are not many authors who research the current use of financial language as such and the level of financial literacy of modern investors. Hence, this study has a dual purpose. It is aimed at identifying the level of financial literacy among people working in banking and investment industries in general, and the number of financially illiterate investors in particular.
If the number of financially illiterate people working in finances is high, ways to solve the problem will be offered. If the percentage of the investors who are ignorant of the basic financial terms turns out to be high, this will confirm the idea that the communication gap between the investors and the financial planner’s roots in the latter’s lack of knowledge in financial language.
Since this study has two major purposes, the research questions will address both of these purposes. There are three major research questions with regards to this study. They are as follows:
- How many financially illiterate people are there among those whose work is related to banking or investment industries?
- How many financially illiterate people are there among modern investors in particular?
- What are the reasons for the business people’s use/non-use of financial language in the working environment?
To give answers to these questions, the percentage of financially illiterate people working in banking and investments industries has first to be calculated. After this, the percentage of investors will be calculated from the total number of financially illiterate participants of the study; if the percentage in both cases is high, the reasons why there are so many financially illiterate people will be identified.
Understanding financial language is crucial for the work of people who are engaged in financial and investment industries. However, there are still many banking workers and investors who live in ignorance with regards to the financial terms that characterize the currently used financial language in the USA. Financial illiteracy leads to a communication gap between investors and financial advisors in particular (Hisey para. 5; Anonymous 57).
This supports the idea that the importance of financial language in the modern U.S. business world is huge. The majority of people working with finances realize this importance, but a number of them have reasons to still stay ignorant of the financial terms the financial world operates with. This study is aimed at identifying how many of such people are indeed financially illiterate and what part of them is constituted by the investors. With respect to this, this literature review is going to present the views of different researchers on the issue of financial language as such, as well as on its importance and the reasons why some people working with finances still do not know financial terminology.
A number of researchers admit that knowledge in a financial language is crucial for achieving success in business explaining this by the fact that comprehension of financial terms gives a great chance to access necessary financial information. Shim and Siegel, for instance, emphasize that mastering finance vocabulary is necessary “to comprehend financial information, to know how to utilize that information effectively, and to communicate clearly about the quantitative aspects of performance and results” (6).
The same idea is supported by Haines who emphasizes that this knowledge helps to “understand and assess how a product’s financial returns affect the business and product portfolio” (106) and Risius who draws attention to the fact that a person working with finances should know the financial language to “understand what the information means and be able to communicate that information to his or her client” (39). Thus, getting access to financial information is the number one reason for learning the financial language.
Another reason, as identified by several researchers, is that financial literacy makes communication in the business world more effective. Some authors, Routh, for instance, emphasize the necessity of knowledge in financial language for effective communication with particular members of the organization one works for, for instance, the CFO (184). At the same time, this researcher admits that this knowledge is also necessary “to be able to express … requests in terms that are relevant and comfortable to the one who is going to approve or deny [these] requests to fund … projects and increase … budgets” (Routh 184).
Similarly, Shim sees the effectiveness of business communication is not only understanding what financial people are saying, but in expressing one’s own ideas in the language of these people (5), while Berman, Knight, and Case express an idea that a person needs to be financially intelligent “to be taken seriously and to communicate effectively” (xiii). In this way, the importance of financial language lies in its value for effective business communication.
Despite this, there are still people who feel reluctant to learn the financial language, even though it is directly related to their work. There are, however, several reasons why these people remain in ignorance with regards to currently used financial language. Discovering these reasons, many researchers have agreed that the first and the most important of them is that knowing financial terminology requires a certain level of knowledge in accountancy.
For example, Lasher expresses the idea that “accounting is the language of finance” (9), which presupposes that learning the language of finance involves learning to account. The link between the knowledge in accounting and knowledge of the financial language is also recognized by Schim who states that one is expected to “have financial and accounting knowledge in order to understand the financial reports prepared by [different] segments of the organization” (3). Since not all the people working in banking and investment industries have time and desire to obtain additional education in accounting, their financial literacy continues to remain rather poor. Besides, the majority of such people are satisfied with the fact that their financial advisors are responsible for this part of their work.
There is also one more reason why people are reluctant to learn the financial language. These days, there are a number of financial products understanding the use of which is possible only if one knows financial terminology. These products usually contain complicated formulas that make them seem professional. However, namely, these formulas make them inaccessible for the general population that does not have specialized knowledge of the financial terms. Since the number of such people prevails over those who are proficient in financial language, they consider it unnecessary to study it.
The final reason is that financial training in businesses, especially small businesses, is neither required nor carried out. This leads to the financial illiteracy of people involved in these businesses. McMillan believes that owing to this lack of financial training and, consequently, insufficient understanding of the language of finances, a number of business owners are unable to “make prudent business decisions based on financial statements because they do not really understand the statements” (43).
Quite supportive of this idea are Kramarae and Spender who emphasize that “all business owners need access to financial resources and training in negotiating financial matters (562). Therefore, adequate training is needed for those who enter the business world because, as a result of this training, business owners will construct their knowledge about basic financial concepts and improve their financial language.
The problem of communication between investors and financial advisors is agreed to be a serious consequence of business owners’ financial illiteracy. As mentioned earlier, there are several reasons why professional jargon is used by financial planners and advisors. However, what is more, concerning is that the use of this jargon negatively influences the relations between the advisors and their clients. This view is supported by Hisey who states that the use of specialized terms by the advisors leads to indecision and confusion, whereas “a prime goal of the advisory relationship is to create an understanding that leads to client comfort, confidence and investment success” (para. 5).
Hisey, however, is not alone in advancing this idea. There are other researchers who believe that inability of the financial planners or advisors to find a common language with the investors significantly worsens their relations; first of all, it results in misunderstandings between them, but, what is especially important, leads to the investors’ losses and, consequently, lack of trust for the financial advisors, which eventually costs the latter money and clients (Bois 58).
Similarly, West and Anthony express an idea that the use of financial language by the financial planners and advisors is destructive for the relationships between clients and advisors: “The professional who speaks over the head of the client is useless to the client. Jargon dissuades the trust of the client and creates a distance in the relationship” (82). It is worth mentioning here that West and Anthony’s study has been especially valuable for the research for it gave direct proof of how such relations are destroyed by presenting the stories of their participants. These are, for instance, two stories that testify to the fact that professional jargon used by the advisors may lead to their not being hired or fired if an investor already uses his/her services:
Shelly, B.: I left the advisor’s office feeling stupid. I didn’t understand what he was talking about and he talked down his nose to me, I said, “No thanks,” went home, called my dad, and said, “You handle it.”
Eddie, Y.: I wanted to scream, “Slow down, this stuff may be second nature to you but it’s not to me.” I felt like I was riding 100 m.p.h. and was supposed to memorize every road sign along the way.” (West and Anthony 82)
However, unlike the majority of researchers, Hisey and Bois in particular, West and Anthony propose the idea that financial advisors do not always use complicated language on purpose. While Hisey states that financial language is used deliberately to confuse the clients and make them think that they will not do without the advisor (11), West and Anthony, together with supporting this view, are also prone to believe that the advisors are simply comfortable with using namely financial language and often do it unconsciously: “In some cases, the use of jargon is unwitting on the part of advisors. Possibly they are so accustomed to speaking the investment language and lingo that it takes a fully conscious effort to move back to everyday English” (83).
Therefore, the majority of the researchers agree that the use of financial language negatively affects the relations between financial advisors and their clients, but not all of them are totally convinced that specialized terms are used by the advisors on purpose; instead, they are a part of their everyday life and they may not understand that the language they speak is not accessible to others.
This will be a qualitative study aimed at discovering the main factors that influence the use of financial language in a business environment. Questionnaires (Appendix A) and structured face-to-face interviews (Appendix B) will be two major instruments of data collection. Questionnaires consisting of general questions on the use of financial terms will help to identify the number of financially literate people in the business world, and investors in particular. The levels of financial literacy will show whether these people use or do not use financial language; on the basis of this, questions for the structured interviews will be compiled. Data collection will take place in two major stages.
Firstly, questionnaires with general questions will be designed and distributed among the participants; this will help to obtain general information about the participants’ use of financial language and their financial literacy (at this, the financial literacy of investors will be considered separately). The data obtained through the questionnaires will be then processed and analyzed; it will serve as a basis for the structured interviews that will take place during the second stage of data collection. Using the data collected through the questionnaires, the questions for the structured interviews will be designed to find out why the participants do/do not use financial language in the working environment. In the course of the interviews, the data will be coded and then analyzed with results carefully presented by the researcher.
Thus, three sets of data need to be collected:
- Data regarding the financial literacy of people working in the business environment;
- Data regarding the financial literacy of investors in particular;
- Data explaining why business workers do/do not use financial language at work.
In total, 30 people took part in the research. 40% of these (12 participants) were investors; the other 60% – people working in financial industries (bankers, for instance). The participants were selected randomly and participation in the research was voluntary. At the first stage of the research, questionnaires (consisting of 10 questions) were distributed among all the participants and a certain amount of time was given to complete them.
To facilitate the task and to reduce the amount of time required for compiling the questionnaires, only multiple choice and a few general knowledge questions were offered to the participants. The answers were coded (“-” for the correct reply and “+” for incorrect); the participants were then roughly classified as either literate (L) (at least 40% of correct answers given) or illiterate (30% and less) (IL). The data obtained were then arranged into the following table:
|Sp. education (yes/no)||Y||Y||N||Y||Y||N||Y||Y||Y||N||Y||N||Y||Y||Y|
|Occupation (investor (i)/other (o)||o||o||i||o||o||i||i||o||o||i||o||i||o||o||o|
|Total literate/illiterate (5)||Literate – 36.7%||Illiterate – 63.3%|
Firstly, the results obtained through the questionnaires have revealed some general personal characteristics of the participants. Thus, of all the participants, 55% have specialized financial education, while 45% do not. At this, the investors constitute the majority of those who do not have financial education (8 out of 10 people, or 80% of the total number). Secondly, the results have revealed certain data regarding the replies given by the participants to the questions of the questionnaire.
On average, the respondents have given 3-4 correct replies for 10 proposed questions. At this, the coefficient of correct replies among the investors was 2.9, while the same coefficient among the representatives of other occupations was 3.8. With regard to the replies in particular, on average, approximately 33% of the replies were correct; consequently, around 67% of the replies were incorrect. Again, at this, approximately 29% of all the investors have given correct replies, while 71% gave incorrect replies.
Finally, the last line of the table reveals that 63.3% of the total number of participants is financially literate (consequently, 36.7% are financially literate). At this, 75% of all the investors have shown to be financially illiterate (9 out of 12 people), while the number of people of other occupations was 10 out of 18, which is 55.5% of the total number.
At the second stage, the interviews have been conducted. However, this time the sample was smaller because it consisted only of those participants who were recognized as financially illiterate (19 people in total). The interviews consisted of three main questions that allowed finding out the importance of financial language for the participants (“+” for a positive reply, “-” for negative), their use of it for seeming more professional (the same coding methods), and their desire to study it if they had an opportunity (the same coding methods). They revealed the following results:
As it can be seen from the table, 63.1% of the respondents considered knowing financial language important, while only 36.8% regarded it as unnecessary. Furthermore, only 4 out of 19 respondents (21%) use financial language to seem more professional at work; at this, one of the respondents considers its use unnecessary. Finally, almost 73.7% of the respondents reported their desire to study financial language if they had an opportunity.
The results have confirmed the assumptions made at the beginning of this study. The number of financially illiterate people prevailed over the number of those who were financially literate (63.3% and 36.7% respectively). This testifies to the fact that a great number of people working in financial industries do not use financial language at work and, moreover, do not understand it. As far as the investors are concerned, 75% of the total number of them were financially illiterate, which proves that the main reason for the communication gap between the investors and their financial advisors is the former’s lack of financial knowledge.
The 2nd stage of the research revealed quite interesting results. The majority of the respondents have reported that knowing the financial language is important (63.1%), and the biggest part of them (almost 74%) has stated that they would study financial language if they had an opportunity. Besides, an insignificant number of respondents use financial language to seem professional (only 21%), which means that the rest of the respondents do not use it because they do not know it.
There are two major limitations to this study. Firstly, multiple-choice questions allow guessing the correct answer. And secondly, no personal characteristics of the respondents were taken into account (such as age or experience of working in a particular industry). However, the effect they had on the results could not be significant because quite a great sample was used.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The study carried out has revealed that the number of financially illiterate people among those who work in banking and investment industries is rather great (63.3%); at this, the majority of these is constituted by the investors who have shown almost complete illiteracy with regards to the use of financial terms (75% of the total number of the investors).
Taking into account the results of the interviews, the main recommendation is for the organizations to organize training for their workers, because the majority of them (almost 74%) expressed their desire to study it provided the opportunity and 63.1% of them consider knowing the financial language important. With regards to the investors, they should also undergo training before entering the business world because this would significantly reduce the communication gap between them and their financial advisors.
Questionnaire: Defining the Level of Financial Literacy
- What is the difference between ROI and PM?
- No difference
- ROI measures efficiency and PM – profitability
- ROI measures profitability and PM – efficiency
- ROI is the term used in banking and PM – in the investment industry
- How often should P&L Statement be submitted?
- Once a week
- Once a month
- Once in three months
- Once a year
- What is the P&L Statement?
- Profit & Loss Statement
- Productivity & Labor Statement
- Product & Level of Quality Statement
- What is SOX?
- Type of a document in accounting
- Name of a famous organization
- A Federal law
- Topline and bottom line are the terms related to.
- The entire business world
- When does overdraft take place?
- When a company transfers money to another company through the bank
- When a company draws more money from its banking account than it has
- When the banking account is closed because no money is left on it
- What is BGC? (please, decipher)
- A blue-chip is…
- A special chip inserted in computer in Accounting Departments
- A name for a highly qualified financial advisor
- A financially sound company
- Is the bull market advantageous?
- It cannot be advantageous or disadvantageous
- What is the time horizon related to?
Questions for the Structured Interviews
- Do you consider using financial language important? Why?
- How often do you use specialized financial terms to seem more professional at work?
- Would you study/improve the current level of your financial language if you had a possibility?
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