Faking It With Freestone: GFC

“I wish I actually knew how all that GFC stuff worked.” You’re chatting in a group at another party and this comes out of the mouth of that hipster boy/girl you’ve earlier wooed with faux-effortless knowledge of climate change, literature and other topics for pseudo-intellectual persiflage. Well this is your chance to seal the deal by cementing your erudition bona fides in front of him/her with some well chosen canards.

After attributing the crisis to the “increased complexity and interdependence of the global financial system” (whatever that means), you’ll have to provide some specifics.The following phrases need to be rote learned: subprime mortgage market, collateralised debt obligation, toxic assets. In particular, “collateralised debt obligation” is, unlike its referent, worth its weight in gold. Merely being able to pronounce “collateralise” will afford you status as a well-read person.

Delivery is tricky. Depending on your audience, you may want to drop it casually, as though it’s one of the many bits of finance esoterica you are familiar with, in your exhaustive knowledge of financial products and securities. Alternatively you may get extra marks if you put quote marks on it and roll your eyes at the jargon, acknowledging that you are savvy enough to know the term and indeed so savvy that you can drop it with disdain, ironically referencing its very wordiness.

You can then explain that CDOs are dodgy financial products which were bundled together and bought by investors, when in fact they were based on virtually worthless underlying assets. This explanation is not only highly simplistic, but also a bit factually wrong. It doesn’t matter. Now that you’re in the realm of intellectuals, facts don’t matter; only delivery and concept-dropping count for anything in this rarefied space.

This explanation will allow others to clarify that, essentially, what went wrong was that people passed off worthless assets as being more valuable than they were. Again, this is not true, at least not in the sense of the word true as it pertains to the truth. It is, however, the ideal position to be in as a pseudo-intellectual. From here, you can reassure people that, yes, there is a relatively simple moral message at the heart of this complex phenomenon and that one merely has to have the knowledge to wade through the technical details to understand the kernel of folk wisdom contained within this cautionary tale.

If someone probes further, then you have probably already done enough, so an exit strategy can be employed with a 95% chance of passing yourself off as an intellectual. One exit might be to simply say, “Hey, we’re at a party, I’d love to discuss derivatives [CDOs aren’t derivatives but it won’t matter] all day, but I don’t want to bore the pants off everyone”. After all, Freestone’s 8th Rule is: the more casual you are about knowledge, the more impressive it is. If you appear to be someone who not only knows the causes of the GFC, but is also so effortlessly learned that they can dismiss further talk in favour of socialising, then you are indeed a consummate smarty.

The other strategy would be to explain that there are further causes, but that they are part of a complicated series of problems involving regulatory reform and corporate governance. Again, actually use the words in a nice sentence. If you say, “Yeah, there’s more stuff about the legal side of things,” you will falter. If you are the sort of person who throws out phrases like “regulatory reform” in effortless conversation, then it doesn’t even matter if people believe you — you have already become so verbose, so smart-sounding that your diction alone will cement you as an intellectual. From here it’s simply a matter of taking the boy/girl home and shagging them. And it’s here, I’m afraid, that this advice column reaches its limits.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

The blog of Jamie Freestone and Mathew McGann