Financial glossary

Traders at the Chicago Board Options Exchange
Image caption What's the difference between a bull and a bear?

The current financial crisis has thrown terminology from the business pages onto the front pages of newspapers, with jargon now abounding everywhere from the coffee bar to the back of a taxi.

Here is a guide to many of the business terms currently cropping up regularly, as well as some of the more exotic words coined to describe some of the social effects of the financial crisis.


IIF The Institute of International Finance is a global trade association of the major banks.

IMF The International Monetary Fund is an organisation set up after World War II to provide financial assistance to governments. Since the 1980s, the IMF has been most active in providing rescue loans to the governments of developing countries that run into debt problems. Since the financial crisis, the IMF has also provided rescue loans, alongside the European Union governments and the ECB, to Greece, the Irish Republic and Portugal. The IMF is traditionally - and of late controversially - headed by a European.

Impairment charge The amount written off by a company when it realises that it has valued an asset more highly than it is actually worth.

Independent Commission on Banking A commission chaired by economist Sir John Vickers set up in 2010 by the UK government in order to make recommendations on how to reform the banking system. The commission reported back in September 2011, and called for:

  • a ring-fence, to separate and safeguard the activities of banks that were deemed essential to the UK economy
  • measures to increase the transparency of bank accounts and competition among banks, including the creation of a new major High Street bank
  • much higher capital requirements for the big banks so that they can better absorb future losses

Inflation The upward price movement of goods and services.

Insolvency A situation in which the value of a borrower's assets is not enough to repay all of its debts. If a borrower can be shown to be insolvent, it normally means they can be declared bankrupt by a court.

Investment bank Investment banks provide financial services for governments, companies or extremely rich individuals. They differ from commercial banks where you have your savings or your mortgage. Traditionally investment banks provided underwriting, and financial advice on mergers and acquisitions, and how to raise money in the financial markets. The term is also commonly used to describe the more risky activities typically undertaken by such firms, including trading directly in financial markets for their own account.


Junk bond A bondwith a credit rating of BB+ or lower. These debts are considered very risky by the ratings agencies. Typically the bonds are traded in markets at a price that offers a very high yield(return to investors) as compensation for the higher risk of default.


Keynesian economics The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. In modern political parlance, the belief that the state can directly stimulate demand in a stagnating economy, for instance, by borrowing money to spend on public works projects such as roads, schools and hospitals.


Lehman Brothers A US investment bank, whose collapse in September 2008 sparked the most intense phase of the financial crisis.

Leverage Leverage, or gearing, means using debt to supplement investment. The more you borrow on top of the funds (or equity) you already have, the more highly leveraged you are. Leverage can increase both gains and losses. Deleveraging means reducing the amount you are borrowing.

Liability A debt or other form of payment obligation, listed in a company's accounts.

Libor London Inter Bank Offered Rate. The rate at which banks in London lend money to each other for the short-term in a particular currency. A new Libor rate is calculated every morning by financial data firm Thomson Reuters based on interest rates provided by members of the British Bankers Association.

Limited liability Confines an investor's loss in a business to the amount of capital they invested. If a person invests £100,000 in a company and it goes under, they will lose only their investment and not more.

Liquidation A process in which assets are sold off for cash. Liquidation is often the outcome for a company deemed irretrievably loss-making. In that case, its assets are sold off individually, and the cash proceeds are used to repay its lenders. In liquidation, a company's lenders and other claimants are given an order of priority. Usually the tax authorities are the first to be paid, while the company's shareholders are the last, typically receiving nothing.

Liquidity How easy something is to convert into cash. Your current account, for example, is more liquid than your house. If you needed to sell your house quickly to pay bills you would have to drop the price substantially to get a sale.

Liquidity crisis A situation in which it suddenly becomes much more difficult for banks to obtain cash due to a general loss of confidence in the financial system. Investors (and, in the case of a bank run, even ordinary depositors) may withdraw their cash from banks, while banks may stop lending to each other, if they fear that some banks could go bust. Because most of a bank's money is tied up in loans, even a healthy bank can run out of cash and collapse in a liquidity crisis. Central banks usually respond to a liquidity crisis by acting as "lender of last resort" and providing emergency cash loans to the banks.

Liquidity trap A situation described by economist John Maynard Keynes in which nervousness about the economy leads everybody to cut back on their spending and to hold cash, even if the cash earns no interest. The widespread fall in spending undermines the economy, which in turn makes households, banks and companies even more nervous about spending and investing their money. The problem becomes particularly intractable when - as in Japan over the last 20 years - the weak spending leads to falling prices, which creates a stronger incentive for people to hold onto their cash, and also makes debts more difficult to repay. In a liquidity trap, monetary policy can become useless, and Keynes said that the onus is on governments to increase their spending.

Loans-to-deposit ratio For financial institutions, the sum of their loans divided by the sum of their deposits. It is used as a way of measuring a bank's vulnerability to the loss of confidence in a liquidity crisis. Deposits are typically guaranteed by the bank's government and are therefore considered a safer source of funding for the bank. Before the 2008 financial crisis, many banks became reliant on other sources of funding - meaning they had very high loan-to-deposit ratios. When these other sources of funding suddenly evaporated, the banks were left critically short of cash.


Mark-to-market (MTM) Recording the value of an asseton a daily basis according to current market prices. So for a Greek governmentbond, the MTM is how much it could be sold for today. Banks are not required to mark to market investments that they intend to hold indefinitely (in what is called the "banking book" in accounting jargon). Instead, these investments are valued at the price at which they were originally purchased, minus any impairment charges - which might arise following a defaultby the borrower.

Monetary policy The policies of the central bank. A central bank has an unlimited ability to create new money. This allows it to control the short-term interest rate, as well as to engage in unorthodox policies such as quantitative easing - printing money to buy up government debts and other assets. Monetary policy can be used to control inflation and to support economic growth.

Money markets Global markets dealing in borrowing and lending on a short-term basis.

Monoline insurance Monolines were set up in the 1970s to insure against the risk that a bondwill default. Companies and public institutions issue bonds to raise money. If they pay a fee to a monoline to insure their debt, the guarantee helps to raise the credit rating of the bond, which in turn means the borrower can raise the money more cheaply.

Mortgage-backed securities (MBS) Banks repackage debts from a number of mortgages into MBS, which can be bought and traded by investors. By selling off their mortgages in the form of MBS, it frees the banks up to lend to more homeowners.

MPC The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England is responsible for setting short-term interest rates and other monetary policy in the UK, such as quantitative easing.