Billions, trillions, quadrillions … the biggest figures in business boggle the mind

Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, with a fortune of US$28.3 billion, is the highest-ranked Arab in a list of “self-made” billionaires, according to a recent survey.

Forget for a moment the definition of “self-made” here, and imagine that sentence presented by a TV broadcaster: “… a fortune of twenty … eight … point … three … BILLion … dollars.” That’s the closest I can get to it in print.

TV presenters always slow down when they announce big financial figures over the air, and they always emphasise the first syllable of million, or billion, or occasionally trillion. Listen well the next time there is a news broadcast of, for example, the amount of financial aid Greece is seeking, and you will hear something like: “The European Central Bank is planning an … eighty … five … point … nine … BILLion … euro bailout for Greece.”

The impression given by the TV folks’ peculiar intonation pattern is to stress the sheer hugeness of the figure, to give the viewer time to digest the vast number, as if to say: “Right now, a really big number is coming up, so I am going to say it … very … slowly … with emphasis on the really big bit – BILLION – so you understand it.”

Also implicit in the broadcaster’s delivery is this: “Yes, I couldn’t believe it myself when I saw it on the autocue, so I had to say it slowly to let it sink in. That’s much more than I will get paid, and most of you too, in 100 lifetimes. I don’t understand how anybody or any country can be worth that, and you, the humble viewer, will certainly agree. Isn’t it unfair?”

But I suspect the truth is that very few viewers have any real understanding of the huge sums that are bandied about in big business and high finance. Up to a million, most people comprehend it, which is why “thousand” is always spoken in “lower case”by the presenters. But after that, it’s all pretty meaningless.

Is $28.3bn such a huge sum of money? To most of us, certainly. But probably less so to Bill Gates, who topped the recent list with eighty … six … BILLion … dollars.

And certainly not in comparison to all the money sloshing around the world.

The World Bank produces something called the Global World Product (GWP) which is, more or less, the aggregation of all the GDPs in the world. In 2014 this came to $76 trillion, sorry, seventy … six … TRILLion … dollars, or 76 followed by 12 zeros.

To add to our confusion, there’s some disagreement about what exactly constitutes a billion.

In France or Germany, for example, Prince Al Waleed would only be a paltry “milliardaire”, and would have to self-make his fortune by a factor of another 1,000 to be a billionaire. I’m sticking to convention in the English and Arabic-speaking world.

But the GWP figure is still not the biggest financial number in common usage. The total volume of world foreign exchange trading is estimated by the Bank for International Settlements at one thousand … four hundred … and sixty … TRILLION dollars per year, or $1,460tn.

You could write that as $1.46 quadrillion – a number with 15 zeros – but nobody really has any understanding of what a quadrillion is. Which is why we use fantasy numbers – such as “zillions” and “squillions” – to express “a very big amount entirely beyond my comprehension, but for sure a lot more than my monthly salary cheque”.

Us ordinary mortals will continue to set a million as the goal. Let’s face it, who wants to be a milliardaire?

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Frank Kane

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