Wordplay: There's No Business Like No Business

When it's not business as usual, for example, with the IDB Holding Company, it's time to worry.

Concerned citizens of Israel who have not been totally overwhelmed by the recent torrent of rumors about Iranian nukes and what Israel is going to do − or not − about them, may have noticed that the IDB Holding Corporation, formerly the largest, strongest company in Israel, is tottering.

A great deal has been written about company chairman Nochi Dankner, the golden boy-turned-into-tycoon of Israeli economics. Moreover headlines notified all and sundry earlier this month that despite its best efforts to stay afloat, a going concern warning was included in IDB Holding’s second-quarter financial reports. But knowing that a going concern warning has been filed and understanding what it actually means are not the same thing.

According to OED, the verb “to concern” means “to relate [to], to be relevant, [to have] interest in”; as a noun, concern means “anxiety, worry.” The etymology of both is from the Latin con ‏(with‏) ‏+ cernere ‏(sift, discern‏). The verb was used quite a lot by both King James Bible translators and the Bard, which probably led to popular usage of the word in noun form; indeed, it makes linguistic and psychological sense that undivided interest in a particular matter may develop into anxiety about it.

Going by the OED, it seems that the headlines about IDB Holding Corp. were telling us that many people are, or should be, deeply concerned and even anxious about what is going to happen to any savings or pension plans that have been invested in the company’s bonds or shares. Coupling the noun “concern” with the adjective “going” ‏(meaning “existing,” according to OED‏) makes particular sense: Since data concerning the situation of IDB Holding in the second quarter of 2012 are deeply upsetting, investors are becoming concerned about what is going on in the company, and where the hell it ‏(and their money‏) is going.

But there is the language of dictionaries, used by mere mortals, and then there is the language of economics. So when trying to understand “going concern” vis-a-vis IDB Holding’s situation, I should look not in the OED, but in the Statements of Auditing Standards of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Inc. ‏(SAS‏), in particular, at statement No. 59. There I learned that auditing is conducted according to various guiding principles and assumptions, one of them being the “going concern” concept, which assumes that “a company will continue to exist long enough to carry out its objectives and commitments and will not liquidate in the foreseeable future.”

The word “concern” in that context does not connote interest or worry; rather it is the English version of the German term konzern ‏(also from the Latin concernere‏), meaning a “type of business group [that] results from the merger of several legally independent companies an economic entity under unified management.”

But what is more important here is that the term “going concern” is not usually mentioned in the context of conducting business as usual. It is taken for granted that an audited company is a going concern, unless there are figures that say otherwise. In such a case, the auditor is supposed to declare the doubts he or she might have after checking out the balance sheet.

The very fact of stating in black on white in a financial statement that an audited company is a going concern is actually an indication, even a warning, that its situation ‏(described not by “going” as a verb in the present continuous tense, but by the word in its adjectival form‏), while economically viable at present, could cease its continuance. That is a nuance, admittedly, but one that could make investors rather tense.

Therefore, the very fact that it has been stated that a particular audited company is a going concern could be a good reason for a going concern. Stating that it is alive ‏(the Hebrew equivalent of the term in question is esek hai − literally, “a live business”‏) could also be seen as auguring its demise. This reminds me of a quip attributed to poet and satirist Dorothy Parker who, upon being told in January 1933 that President Calvin Coolidge, known for being very uncommunicative, had died, said: “Really? How can they tell?”

The ambiguity of words, and especially of the adjective “going,” reminded me of a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” It is about a relationship between a composer and a lyricist ‏(Sondheim happens to be both‏), but can be interpreted also as concerning the relations between a man and his money, or between investors and the man who holds the controlling interest in the company they have invested in: “It started out like a song / We started quiet / And slow, with no surprise / Then one morning / I woke to realize / We have a good thing going. // It’s not / That nothing went wrong / Some angry moments, of course / But just a few / And only moments / No more, because we knew / We had a good thing going // And if I wanted too much / Was that such a mistake? / Half the time / You never wanted enough / Okay, though / I don’t make that a crime / And while it’s going along / You take for granted / Some love will wear away / We took for granted a lot / And still I say / It could have / Kept on growing / Instead of just kept on / We had a good thing / Going, going, gone.”

Indeed, each time we say to ourselves − or hear from an auditor − that a business is still going, and going, we should also hear in our minds the looming tap of the gavel in the hand of the auctioneer, bringing the spending spree to a close, changing the situation from the present continuous to the past participle: gone.

It was, by the way, Benjamin Netanyahu who introduced into local public discourse the phrase “a concerned citizen” − referring to himself in 2001, while on a hiatus from active political life, but not abstaining from harsh criticism of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. I’m sorely tempted here to go on in this vein, and propose that the State of Israel − based on the way it has been conducting itself recently under the leadership of Messrs. Netanyahu and Barak − should get a going concern warning from its concerned citizens, but I don’t not want to spoil the holiday season.

Don’t ask for whom it may concern, for it tolls for, and concerns, thee.