Animals in the world of finance

Animals in the world of finance

Unicorns, bears, stags, piggy banks and black swans - what have all these creatures got to do with your hard-earned cash?

Well, far more than you would think at first glance. They are all beasts that appear in the global economic ecosystem. They pop up as warnings, messages, signals and useful analogies in order to help us navigate what can sometimes be a confusing, closed-off world.


Bears pop up a lot in business and nobody is quite clear on why they are such a feature of the financial landscape, though some claim it is because The London Stock Exchange was set up in the seventeenth century, a time when bearbaiting was a popular pastime.

Bear investors target vulnerable securities and try to make a profit from a decline in stock prices. Many believe it all goes back to the old bearskin traders and the idiom ‘to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear’. This was when the middleman or ‘bearskin jobber’ would sell a skin at one price and then buy it cheaper from the trapper, pocketing the profit.

Bear market goes straight to the heart of the stock exchanges. Whilst the value of stocks generally rise and fall, at times they simply fall and fall. And if you have a fall of twenty per cent or a long-term decline of more than two months, this is when you have a Bear Market. It is the opposite of a Bull Market, some believe this pairing dates back to when bulls and bears were pitted against each other in staged fights. The bull would thrust its horns upwards, while the bear would swat down with its paws.


Bull Market is the opposite of a Bear Market. Some believe the analogy originates from the bull-and-bear fights of the eighteenth century.

A bull attacks by thrusting its horns upwards, so when the price of shares on the stock market is rising, it’s a ‘bull market’.

In fact, anything that is traded (bonds, real estate, currencies and commodities), can be described as a bull market when the trend is upwards. The trajectory has to be fairly sustained so, typically, the rise in stock prices is ongoing and market confidence is high.


Pigs unfortunately have a reputation for being very greedy and so a Pig is any investor who gets so overexcited by the thought of profits that they lose sight of their original investment strategy for all the dollar signs in their eyes. Sadly, the dreamed-of gains rarely tumble into their laps. In fact, there is a saying on Wall Street: ‘Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered’.

You might have had a Piggy Bank in your childhood, for putting your spare change and pocket money in. In fact, the Piggy Bank has a very long history, going back to at least 1450. Before there were banks, people would stash their money at home in an earthenware pot called a ‘pygg’. This explains why potters in the nineteenth century fashioned Piggy Banks after this farmyard animal. Oink.


The former Wall Street trader, now scholar, statistician and essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, came up with the famous motif of a Black Swan Event. 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.

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).


A Stag is an impatient investor. When a company goes public, it is listed on the stock exchange and shares are offered to be bought and sold. A Stag doesn’t hang around to see how things pan out as they’ll have bought shares prior to public trading and then sell them straight away. It’s a strategy that is no-nonsense and fast-moving.

A Stag likes hot deals and quick profits. Oh Bambi, is this what you’ll grow up to be?


A Unicorn is, of course, a magical creature and so it’s unsurprising that, in business, this name has been bestowed on startups that have grown in value from nothing to at least $1 billion US dollars. The phrase was invented in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee. Famous Unicorns include Airbnb, Facebook and SpaceX and, while the term is now in common parlance, the number of true Unicorns remains in the hundreds, at the time of writing.

A Unicorn bubble is what happens when venture capitalists or investors overvalue a company, and it can occur during their private phase or at the point of their initial public offering.

Extracted from: Bear Markets and Beyond: A Bestiary of Business Terms by Dhruti Shah and Dominic Bailey (Portico). Illustrations by Dominic Bailey.

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