Heads I win, tails you lose

2012-05-04 11:28



Heads I win, tails you loseReader question:

Please explain “heads I win, tails you lose” in this sentence – Our investigation suggests a disconnect between compensation and bank performance that resulted in a “heads I win, tails you lose” bonus system.

My comments:

In a word, unfair.

“Heads I win, tails you lose” is a variation from “Heads I win, tails you win”, which is what one usually says before tossing up a coin.

Before people toss up a coin to decide a winner, each side is asked what he wants, heads or tails.

Heads refer to the front of a coin, tails the backside. The front of the coin is referred to as heads because many British coins bear the head of Her Majesty the Queen.

Heads, always plural.

Plural? Why?

I don’t know. English, after all, is a language that is often hard for foreigners to, well, quite fittingly, make head or tails of (here, you see, head is single).

Anyways, before you toss up the coin you ask your partner what he/she wants, head or tails. If they say they want tails. That’s when you say: Okay, heads I win, tails you win.

What if you then say “heads I win, tails you lose”?

You’re cheating, of course, or perhaps you’re just joking to make sure your partner is attentive.

Anyways, in terms banking, when people say it’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation with the major banks, they mean to point out that today’s banking is a win-win situation for the banks – and lose-lose for the public. That is, if banks make money, shareholders keep the profit with executives garnering big bonuses. If they fail to make money, and especially if they fail big, the government often steps in to bail the banks out with tax payer money.

Yeah, the public is on the losing end either way. But that’s about what banking is, isn’t it? Banks are banking on your money.

Summing up, heads I win, tails you lose describes a situation in real life where one partner completely dominates the other, with one party, unfairly, winning all the time no matter what.

Here are two media examples:

1. The cliché: “Heads I win tails you lose,” is an old game of rigged odds, but it has been getting a lot of play among this week’s opinion writers, concerned as they are with the state of our financial industry. Last week, Huffington Post columnist Raymond Learsy wrote, “We as citizens, no longer feel able, through our elected officials, to stem the influence, the systematic ‘Heads I win, Tails you lose’ of our financial institutions.” Then, in a column posted yesterday, The Washington Post’s Roger Cohen wrote about Citigroup’s recent settlement saying, “It was so certain that the investments were the financial equivalent of my used car that it bet against them -- heads I win, tails you lose.” And in today’s New York Times, Joe Nocera writes that Jon Corzine’s $12 million severance fee with MF Global shows “the extent to which ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ remains the operative concept for Wall Street compensation.”

Where it’s from: The helpful people at firstmention.com have found references to the phrase as early as 1802 in the Congressional Record. It’s a way of saying, “I win, no matter what,” while trying to trick someone into thinking they are getting a fair deal. Thus, it’s long existed as an occasional metaphor for a confusing financial system that seems to guarantee success for the executives that run it as well as a metaphor for a range of other “rigged” systems from the NFL to liberal logic. But the 2008 crash really bumped up the repeated references, with critics of Wall Street like Andrew Cuomo, Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, and Ben Stein making prominent use of the phrase to discuss the roots of the crisis.

- Everyone on Wall Street Is Playing 'Heads I Win, Tails You Lose', TheAtlanticWire.com, November 1, 2011.

2. Sir Mervyn King has admitted that the Bank of England should have “shouted from the rooftops” its concerns about the looming disaster in the City as he warned that Britain’s recovery from recession would be a long, slow process.

The Bank’s governor urged the coalition government to press ahead with reforms that would ringfence the high-street operations of banks from their speculative activities, after blaming the last Labour government for allowing the financial sector to take ever bigger gambles in the build-up to the financial crisis of 2007-08.

King said that the decision by Gordon Brown to strip Threadneedle Street of its powers to regulate banks had left him unable to do more than “issue reports and preach sermons” as the financial system became “increasingly fragile”.

While accepting that “no one could quite bring themselves to believe that in our modern financial system the biggest banks in the world could fall over”, the governor said the Bank had been aware of the precarious position of institutions that were lending too much.

“That isn’t to say we were blind to what was going on”, he said in the BBC Today Programme Lecture, adding that for several years the Bank of England and other central banks had warned that the financial markets were underestimating the risks they were taking.

“So why, you might ask, did the Bank of England not do more to prevent the disaster? We should have. But the power to regulate banks had been taken away from us in 1997. Our power was limited to that of publishing reports and preaching sermons. And we did preach sermons about the risks.”

Looking back at the events since global financial markets froze up in August 2007, King said the Bank had not imagined the scale of the disaster that would occur when the risks it had identified crystallised. The crisis led to a three-day run on Northern Rock – the first on a British high street bank since the 1860s – and, a year later, the part-nationalisation of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we should have shouted from the rooftops that a system had been built in which banks were too important to fail, that banks had grown too quickly and borrowed too much, and that so-called ‘light-touch’ regulation hadn't prevented any of this,” King said.

“And in the crisis, we tried, but should have tried harder, to persuade everyone of the need to recapitalise the banks sooner and by more. We should have preached that the lessons of history were being forgotten – because banking crises have happened before.”

The financial crisis led to the deepest slump in the UK output since the second world war, but King defended the Bank’s handling of monetary policy in the pre-crash years. Recessions, he said, were supposed to follow booms and periods of high inflation: there seemed no reason in this case to expect the worst recession since the 1930s.

“In the five years before the onset of the crisis, across the industrialised world growth was steady and both unemployment and inflation were low and stable. Whether in this country, the United States or Europe, there was no unsustainable boom like that seen in the 1980s; this was a bust without a boom.”

The governor was critical of a banking system that had “overextended” itself, noting that, by the end of 2006, the banks had borrowed £50 for every pound provided by their own shareholders. Problems were building in the banking system, he said, noting “on all sides there was a failure of imagination to appreciate the scale of the fragilities and their potential consequences”.

King added: “In good times, banks took the benefits for their employees and shareholders, while in bad times the taxpayer bore the costs. For the banks, it was a case of heads I win, tails you – the taxpayer – lose.”

- Sir Mervyn King admits: we did too little to warn of economic crisis, Guardian.co.uk, May 2, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Ripple effect

Written all over it?

The penny has dropped

The straight and narrow?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)

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