I’m just back from a fun stint as a guest host of CNBC’s Power Lunch and was struck by the increasing popularity of the term: “A perfect storm.” People are using it to describe everything from market conditions to the state of the Republican Party. There’s even a “perfect storm” for gold at the moment.
Washington Mutual CEO Kerry Killinger said today at a Lehman Bros. conference that there’s a “near-perfect storm” in the housing market (which, of course, doesn’t bode well for WaMu). When Skype’s phone service went down a few weeks ago, executives blamed it on a “perfect storm” of events.
It’s not a new term, of course. Sebastian Junger used it as the title of a 1999 book about actual weather events. When Roger Crocker, America’s new ambassador to Iraq, helped to draft a memo on the pitfalls of the Iraq war five years ago, the title was “The Perfect Storm.”
But what exactly is a perfect storm? The connotation is almost always negative; when a particular set of events come together to magnify a situation to the point where it’s essentially uncontrollable. It relieves blame. WaMu’s chief cited the confluence of rising delinquencies and foreclosures, along with a credit crunch and other factors. The implicit assumption is that lenders like, say, WaMu are but victims in the storm.
Of course, almost every significant event is caused by some “perfect storm” of circumstances coming together. But what kind of perfect storm has made the term become such a cliche? Maybe it’s a sudden acknowledgement of the nuance of factors in business, combined with a growing sense that it’s all beyond our control.
Whatever the reason, I’m left wondering what fortuitious mix of events will prompt the term to fall into disuse.
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