Decoding "platypus bottom," the newest animal metaphor on Wall Street.

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 1 2008 4:15 PM

Hitting "Platypus Bottom"

Forget bears and bulls. There's a new animal metaphor on Wall Street.

Read more about Wall Street's ongoing crisis.

Platypus bottom. Click image to expand
Is "platypus bottom" the new Wall Street metaphor?

Friday morning on CNBC, UBS's trading-floor czar Art Cashin was asked whether he thought the markets had bottomed out. Rather than offer a tried-and-true business cliché about bulls and bears, Cashin got creative. It "might be more of a platypus bottom," he said. Come again?

A Google search reveals this isn't the first time Cashin has used the phrase. About a week ago, he described the market in similar terms, again telling CNBC: "The trouble with this one is … this isn't a normal-looking bottom. It might be a platypus bottom. It might just be something strange we've never seen before." Google suggests that nobody else has ever uttered the phrase. Cashin is the only one trying to spread this neologism.

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What's the meaning of the "platypus bottom"? In search of answers, I called Dr. Mark Batzer at Louisiana State University. Batzer is a biological sciences professor who helped crack the platypus genome. When I asked him whether a platypus bottom was remarkable in any way, Batzer sounded perplexed. "I guess we all think our bottoms are special, don't we?" he said, before telling me that a platypus' backside isn't that much different than that of other mammals. Platypuses have all sorts of interesting features—venom, bills, eggs—"but the butt is the butt." Nothing special on the underbelly, either.

Trying to get inside Cashin's head, Batzer suggested the UBS analyst may have been trying to say that the market had devolved. Platypuses are often considered a primitive mammal because they lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. Where do those eggs come out? Near the bottom. Perhaps Cashin was suggesting that the market is finally fertile enough to move on to the next generation. It's the circle of life for fiscal platypuses.

But that wasn't what Cashin meant. After getting pestered about it ceaselessly, he wrote up an explanation in a daily newsletter for UBS employees and clients. Warning: The explanation only makes the comments seem that much more absurd.

On Friday CNBC's Melissa Lee asked me if I was convinced that the spike from Tuesday's lows was just another bear market rally.  I replied that it looked a lot like that but I would give it a couple of days to review.  I said that while we are all looking for something familiar like a "vee" bottom, there's always the chance that you could get something unfamiliar. Maybe we could get a platypus bottom.

I'm still confused.

Luckily, he continues:

The platypus, as you may recall was a little stunning to the first Europeans to arrive in Australia, its homeland.  The platypus seems to be a biological paradox.  It is an egg-laying mammal with webbed feet and a snout that resembles a duck's bill. It breathes air but spends lots of time under water. So what does that have to do with stock market bottoms? Well, the recent action has many conflicting and paradoxical signs related to bottoms.

Aha. Market indicators are conflicting, just like a platypus' physical characteristics. Nothing says paradox quite like a platypus.

Even though his rationale is a little loopy, Cashin may have started something special. "Platypus bottom" could well become the financial sector's "All your base are belong to us" or "jump the shark." The uses are endless: When somebody goes on a horrific date, but the object of his or her affection still asks to hang out again, it's platypus bottom. When world-class athletes go through a funk and don't know when they'll return to form, they've reached platypus bottom. When a trader loses millions of dollars because of a credit crunch and wonders if the worst of it is finally over: platypus bottom.

Internet obsessives take note: Platypusbottom.com is still available. Snatch it up before this meme hits, uh, platypus bottom.

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