BRICs, CIVETS, and PIGS: What's in a name?

A look at how financial firms use colorful nicknames to push investments.

Ten years ago, Jim O'Neill, a Goldman Sachs "rock star," published a paper titled "The World Needs Better Economic BRICs." It was a bit of wordplay on which, as they say, he is still dining out.

He identified Brazil, Russia, India, and China as four rapidly growing "developing countries" likely to challenge the Group of Seven major economies (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, and Italy). The four countries' names make a memorable acronym, and it surely sounds solid, doesn't it?

"Developing countries" is often a euphemism used in contrast with "developed countries," such as those of the G7. But in the case of the BRICs, the "developing" countries are actually developing, and fast enough to help keep the global economy afloat amid rough weather in Europe and the US. Mr. O'Neill's judgment has been vindicated over the past decade.

And now, in a new role as chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, he has a new book out, "The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond." He's trying to get people to stop speaking of "emerging markets" (itself a euphemism on the order of "developing countries") and start talking about "growth markets."

He's also come up with another shorthand, for Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey: MIKT or MIST. It gives some hard-working, high-achieving countries their due, but, alas, neither version works much as an acronym. He's also pushing the "N-11" – the "next 11" hot investment targets.

But he's up against another catchier tag: "civets." When I first read about this one, I was ready to file it under "sports teams named after obscure mammals more meaningful in their hometowns than they are to me." No, actually, a civet, or civet cat, is an African or Asian animal. Civets are also involved in the making of some perfumes. How involved? Hmm, let's just say, not as investors.

But to an investor, a CIVETS fund is one that invests in Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa.

O'Neill and other financial executives aren't just being cute when they come up with these clever nicknames. They're using the power of language to try to make investors feel more comfortable about putting their money into these places. "People are still scared of these places," O'Neill said in a recent interview.

Not without some reason. And not to put too fine a point on it, but O'Neill and his colleagues at Goldman Sachs have an interest in trying to sell us something. How can a BRIC not be a good investment? Sounds solid, doesn't it? Except when it's a police state.

Unlike political groupings, where geography tends to matter, the BRICs are spread across three continents. And they're all over the map politically, too – ranging from robust but messy democracies to, well, how would you describe Russia and China politically at this point?

The negative power of the financial acronym has also been unleashed in Europe over the past few years, as the debt-troubled nations of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain have been derisively ­referred to as the "PIGS."

Clever phrases can be a lot of fun, and helpful, too. And of course the investment houses are going to push investments; that's what they do. But not every acronym is solid as a brick.

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