A Financial English Primer

Call it “finglish,” or financial English. Financial and economic terms dominate the news nowadays, amid talk of fiscal cliffs and eurozone troubles. Plus, new financial terms crop up all the time for a new product or strategy, like quantitative easing.

Since the news is particularly ripe with financial terms right now, it is a great time for us to learn some common finance terms. Some finglish terms are often confused and used improperly in the media. Hopefully, this will increase your financial knowledge, help you to understand the key issues we’re facing and communicate better with your financial advisor.

Six Finglish Terms You Should Know

Federal budget deficit. This term is in the news constantly and for good reason—the deficit is huge, at $1.1 trillion. This means that the federal government is spending $1.1 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.

National debt. A lot of people confuse the debt and the deficit. The amount of gross federal debt outstanding is a difficult-to-imagine $16.2 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 almost $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 rating last summer.

Entitlement spending. This refers to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid outlays by the government. 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 reformed to fix the debt problem. But it’s a political minefield, and a divided post-election government will make change difficult.

Debt ceiling. The federal government is limited by law on the total amount of debt it issues. This limit is known as the debt ceiling. Currently, the debt ceiling is $16.4 trillion, an amount that we will exceed in early 2013. Fortunately, the government can continue to operate and pay its obligations through various accounting mechanisms and Congress will mostly likely vote to increase the ceiling.

Quantitative easing (QE). This is a weapon in the Federal Reserve’s arsenal to help the country out of a recession when all else fails. This is sometimes referred to as “printing money,” but this term is misleading since very few new paper bills are issued and the Treasury prints currency anyway, not the Fed. The Fed tends to use QE when it has lowered interest rates to close to 0% and the economy doesn’t improve. Quantitative easing increases the money supply by flooding banks and other financial institutions with capital through the Fed’s asset purchases in an effort to promote increased lending and liquidity.

The Fed announced the third round of QE on Sepember. 13, 2012. Each month, for as long as it takes, the Fed will buy $40 billion in bonds and mortgage-backed securities, and keep rates close to zero until 2015. Many economists are concerned that open-ended asset purchases 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).

Yield Curve. When the Fed expands the money supply, it intends to spur borrowing by lowering interest rates further out on the yield curve. The yield curve is basically a chart showing borrowing costs for bonds of different maturities.

Naturally, longer maturities of 10 to 30 years come with higher interest rates to compensate the lender (the bond holder) for parting with that money for a longer time. Short-term debt usually carries a lower interest rate. By driving down long-term borrowing costs, the Fed hopes to encourage businesses to borrow more so they can invest and hire people.

Becoming a Better Informed Investor

The list above is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finglish. There are many others terms that you should be familiar with. Getting used to financial terms makes you a more empowered investor and a more informed citizen. Don’t let seemingly arcane vocabulary turn you away from investing and pursuing your financial future.