Welcome to the jungle
A bestiary of birds who mean business
The jargon of the business world is a code but we’re on hand to crack it thanks to these seven birds who have something to teach us about success and sustainability
Vultures, ducks, ostriches, and swans – what have all these creatures got to do with your hard-earned cash? Well, far more than you might think at first glance. They are all birds that appear in the global economic ecosystem. They pop up as warnings, messages and signals – and provide us with useful analogies for describing and navigating what can sometimes be a confusing, closed-off world.
The well-known adage, ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, advises you to value what you have rather than what you don’t possess.
Animals have always exerted a strong hold on our imagination. You only have to look at prehistoric cave paintings to see how central they were to our existence and, in capturing these images and using them to pass on messages to the community, we can see how they were our first linguistic tools and shaped our relationship with each other.
It’s therefore not surprising that, many millennia later, our contemporary Capitalist world is populated with metaphorical animals that stalk the landscape and alert us in the same way to what we can trust and what we should fear. The financial jungle is a place of intense competition, where the rules are simply; survival of the fittest. We can only make this planet better if we understand what everyone is on about.
To avoid being as dead as a dodo or a sitting duck, watch out for shady vultures as you follow these seven birds through the undergrowth, starting with The Egg, which is also the theme of TOPIA Season 02. A very good place to start.
The Nest Egg
A nice little (big) Nest Egg is what everybody wants to have when they retire as it means they’ve saved up enough money to live in a comfortable manner. The phrase is believed to have originated with poultry farmers, who would drop an additional egg (both real and fake) into a hen’s nest to try to induce her to produce even more. That way their own ‘nest egg’ would grow…
A Vulture Investor will invest in distressed firms, assets or bonds in the hope that, after buying at a steep discount, there will be a turnaround and the vulture can profit from this. They often buy from those who are desperate to sell and don’t have a lot of buyers to choose from. However, the typical vulture strategy is to mine the value of their investment and use legal routes to take ownership of the company’s assets – and then potentially break that company up.
There is also a shadier side to Vulture Investing which involves the purchase in government bonds or debts of struggling developing countries. Bonds are bought at a deeply discounted price and then, subsequently, investment firms have been known to take legal action to demand full payment. Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Zambia and many others have all been on the receiving end of this kind of action.
A Vulture Fund invests in companies or countries that are struggling, or that are very risky, in the hope of making huge profits should they recover.
Cluck, cluck, cluck – here you have a Chicken Investor. The challenge with these domesticated birds is that they are deathly afraid – of everything. And chicken investors approach the market with the same kind of trepidation. They cluck around with no particular plan. They are spooked by any kind of loss and fear easily overrides common sense. But this means they never stand a chance to make any type of gain.
We’ve seen that the bulls get paired with the bears; well for some reason (perhaps the farmyard proximity), the chickens often seem to get paired with pigs
This poor bird makes for easy prey.
Lame Duck refers to an individual or company that cannot keep up with the rest of the market. The phrase was coined in the eighteenth century at the London Stock Exchange and referred to a stockbroker who defaulted on his debts. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the letters of English writer Horace Walpole in 1761 as the first recorded use, where he asks: ‘Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are?’Investors who continually make poor trades and lose out on profits are also described as Lame Ducks.
A Sitting Duck refers to an individual or business that doesn’t have a lot of protection and is vulnerable to attack.
Ugly Duckling Stocks
Ugly Duckling Stocks are those that are underperforming but that are also seen by speculative investors as having the potential for improvement and thus to be of value. Fund manager, Donald Yacktman, looks for bargains to invest in as he understands ‘the transformation from the ugly duckling to the swan doesn’t happen instantaneously’.
Milkshake Duck refers to an internet meme that stands for a person or thing that enjoys huge initial popularity, which is then followed by the revelation of flaws that make its popularity too problematic. The term has gained prominence in an era where cancel culture has derailed careers. People have lost jobs after becoming famous but then their social media history has been trawled through and it’s been found they aren’t the perfect person the internet initially deemed them to be.
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The Goose that lays the golden eggs
This goes back to fairy tales. The Goose appears in Aesop’s fables as well as in many stories from around the world. She’s a bird that regularly lays golden eggs. However, the owners of the goose believe she must have a large lump of gold inside her and so they kill her, and, of course, then there are no more golden eggs. The moral of the tale is, don’t lose out on everything in a bid to sate short-term greed and desires.
The Ostrich Effect
The Ostrich Effect is a term from behavioural economics and was coined in a study by Dan Galai and Orly Sade. They observed the behaviour of investors and concluded that they monitored their portfolios more frequently in rising markets than when markets are falling. The definition was further expanded by Niklas Karlsson, George Loewenstein and Duane J. Seppi who used it to mean ‘avoiding exposing oneself to information that one fear may cause psychological discomfort’. Clearly then, avoiding the financial news would be a symptom of this.
However, ostriches don’t, in fact, bury their heads in the sand as this would mean they were unable to breathe. What they do is dig holes in the dirt to use as nests for their eggs and so, several times a day, the mother ostrich buries her head in the hole and turns the eggs.
Similarly, a more recent study has shown investors to more resemble the hypervigilant meerkat rather than the head-down ostrich. Which one are you?
Black Swan Event
The former Wall Street trader, now scholar, statistician and essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, came up with this famous motif. Europeans once assumed all swans were white, until a black one was spotted in the southern hemisphere. Therefore, a Black Swan is a metaphor for an unpredictable high-impact event, such as the global financial crash of 2008. The term has proved so influential that it has created spin-off labels, see below.
Grey Swan Event
As grey is a mix of both black and white, a Grey Swan Event is high-impact and deemed unlikely, and yet anticipated ‘to a certain degree’. The Japanese finance company Nomura issues a yearly list of Grey Swan events and has previously suggested the following; the Chinese economy adopting a floating currency and the phasing out of paper money (with developed countries taking the lead on this).
Swans aren’t always bad
Now check out this Guest Post by John Elkington, the author of Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
We can only make this planet better if we understand what the hell everyone is on about. What’s your animal spirit? Find out in this illustrated guide to animals in the business world: Bear Markets and Beyond.
Meet the writer
Always up for an adventure, Dhruti Shah is an award-winning author, freelance journalist, producer and storyteller. She is innately curious and has written on technology, business, women changing the world, comics, science and much more. The “ideas factory” has led record-making BBC international partnership projects.
Meet the illustrator
Dominic Bailey is a journalist by day and self-taught illustrator by night with an interest in animals. He has 20 years’ experience at the BBC News website. Currently on the Visual Journalism team, working with designers and developers to produce graphics and interactives on the biggest stories of the day.