Fedspeak, otherwise known as “purposeful obfuscation”

I’ve been working with several teams of economists lately and it’s got me wondering where they learn to write like that. If you’re lucky enough to have encountered anything penned by an economist, you’ll be familiar with their style: a sort of faux academic-ese in which opacity is deemed an acceptable way to hedge one’s argument.

The people reading this stuff include investors wanting to know where to put their money and senior executives seeking a steer on their business strategy. So why are these unfortunate readers so often presented with reams of impenetrable wordage that leaves them none the wiser?

And then it dawned on me. Most economists are merely aping (and who can blame them?) the language of the guy with the top job in the field: the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Known as “Fedspeak”, this style was invented by former chairman Alan Greenspan and has been enthusiastically adopted by his successor, Ben Bernanke.

The purpose of talking in Fedspeak is to say lots and lots without saying anything at all, because investors hang on your every word. Say something they actually understand and you might spook or delight the markets into moving one way or the other. Often, different newspapers would report the same Greenspan speech with completely opposite interpretations – which is exactly as he wanted it.

Greenspan is quite happy to acknowledge his fondness for convoluted prose: famously, he once replied to a US senator who claimed to have understood him that “in that case, I must have misspoken”. Check out these videos of him talking openly about his tendency for “purposeful obfuscation” and “syntax destruction”.

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10 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Andy Nattan says:

    That’s the antithesis of everything I stand for, yet I can’t help but be impressed.

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Proof positive that someone can be to smart for his own good. Or her.

  3. Larner says:

    Was it Gordon Gekko who said there’s probably a group of only around 70 people in the whole of the country that knows what these acronyms mean; the others just pretend they do.

    There’s a lot of truth in that kind of fiction for me.

    As Andy points out though – it’s still mighty impressive!

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bradshorr, Andrew Nattan, Clare Lynch, Dom Conlon, Larner Caleb and others. Larner Caleb said: RT @goodcopybadcopy: New blog post: the art of purposeful obfuscation http://bit.ly/cCHPiy […]

  5. I think it was the Hari Seldon character in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy that devised a way of analysing a speech, picking out the negatives that cancelled the positives, until he got to the kernel of what was being said. Which was usually nothing.

    We aren’t so blessed, so we have to do our best, but the great thing about economese is that they can always say they told us so even when they haven’t.

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    I know what you mean, Andy – what’s impressive is both his ability to keep up the convoluted prose without lapsing into a moment of clarity and his openness about it.

  7. Clare Lynch says:

    I suspect it’s that he’s too smart for our good . . .

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    That’s exactly what Gillian Tett says (she’s the FT journalist who exposed the dangers of all those MTA – Miscellaneous Toxic Assets – before anyone else did). Actually, I think she has said you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who ever understood them.

    I’m so excited Gordon Gekko’s back!

  9. Clare Lynch says:

    Mr Parrot, you have just reminded me of one of my favourite JK Galbraith quotes: “The purpose of economic forecasts is to make astrology look respectable”.

  10. Copywriter says:

    I enjoyed reading. I don’t have much knowledge about it but your post was interesting.

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