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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of…

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Niall Ferguson

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1,971413,441 (3.68)33
Title:The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
Authors:Niall Ferguson
Info:Penguin (2009), Paperback, 448 pages
Collections:Your library, Lifetime reading
Tags:history, finance, economics, :16c, :20c, 1990s, 2000s, 1980s, crises, banks, IKEA, read in 2013

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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson (2008)



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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
This was excellent - why did it take me so long to pick it up! I loved how each chapter was about a different major component of the financial world. It did start to drag a bit at the end but otherwise was so interesting I could barely put it down. ( )
  janeycanuck | Apr 19, 2015 |
I learnt a reasonable amount from this book, but I began to get troublingly lost in the later passages, and ended up not getting what I came for in terms of explication of the latest events in the world of money. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Nov 9, 2014 |
Good book but light on the "history" and very much focused on banking, events, and money transaction in the 1900's, early 2000's and mostly the USA; what was included was interesting, such as the development of insurance... the insuring of ships and tradegoods in the 1600/1700s... and how that progressed to what we call insurance today. However, I thought there would be more history so, personally, I was disappointed... but overall it was probably a good book for those looking to understand the author's views of the events between about 1920-2008 that shaped the mostly-USA-oriented market. It *does* mention foreign markets but seemed to always be in relationship to the USA. ( )
  marshapetry | Oct 22, 2014 |
This book is terrible. It is a list of capitalism's failures while simultaneiously claiming it has nothing to do with capitalism. From an objective standpoint it doesn't seem to have a central thesis or even any kind of point besides "Capitalism is great!". ( )
  collingsruth | Sep 19, 2014 |
The author has enjoyed privileged access, as a well-schooled Harvard professor, to the finest peer-reviewed thinking drawn from historical records and economic data. He apparently uses very little of it.

In this work, he chose to present an overview of financial practices, from the first forms of currency in Ancient Mesopotamia to the massive volumes of unregulated asset-backed securities trading conducted in the 1920's and 2000's. He touches only slightly on the high-tech financial manipulations of the enormous private banks using international markets, and the impact of technological “steroids”, by the private traders of the twenty-first century.

In six chapters, Ferguson describes an evolution of finance – currency, credit, bonds, corporate stock, insurance, and real estate. He compares financial development to biological “natural selection”. While this is a helpful model, he uses it descriptively, and fails to provide prescriptive references or validation. For example, he fails to show us how the increasing “organization of specialized parts” model helps us understand how speculators removed $40 trillion from the U.S. Economy in 2008. It does, but he doesn’t.

Irritatingly, Ferguson only appears to illuminate economic systems. He refuses to answer even the obvious Questions which burden even a lay audience today. What role can our Representatives in Congress play? Should tax payers bail out the private banks which manipulate “bubbles” or should Government stop funding the enormous profits of private banks and provide its own lending as a public service?

Ferguson takes the time to explain various elementary financial concepts – known to virtually all consumers who have opened a bank account. He sticks to the “history” of the institutions without understanding the tools they use – the econometrics, the stochastics, the “rating” games and “financial product” sleight of hand.

The history of the bond, equity, and real estate markets, across time and continents, is of course invaluable. Professor Ferguson describes the primitive and repeated mania which is behind many of the disasters of history. He places bank speculation at the heart of many of them. Financial “bubbles”are driven by speculation, greed, and the willingness of gamblers to take risks with money. There is an odd disconnect, however, within his procrustean “five stages” of financial bubbles: displacement, euphoria, mania, distress, and revulsion.

To his credit, Ferguson at least spares us from excesses of “opinion”. He reports the events and sequences. The area of some exception is when Professor Ferguson describes European financiers as the source of modern wealth and prosperity. Banks clearly played formative roles in Italy in the late Middle Ages, and among the Dutch in the 17th century. John Law’s publicly-funded private bank – making vast investments in infrastructure using paper money to replace metal currency – enabled King Louis XV to bring the economy of France back from the ruin of Louis XIV. The growth of Great Britain's empire is at least partially attributed to the investments made by the Bank of England in 1694. The rise of a middle class is attributed to the efforts by Government to open up and protect markets and increase trading volumes.

However, Professor Ferguson fails to even point us toward the answers to hard research questions. Does this work help answer The Questions our circumstances bring to the table?

Clearly the financial “bubbles” documented in the book are for the most part deliberately created by plutocrats and bankers. Governments for the most part provide the data, and to a various and indeterminate extent are used by the bankers to exacerbate their manipulations. For example, look at John Law’s impact on France in the 1600s. The recovery of the world from the economic exhaustion in WWI and WWII, and the use of Keynesian theory. The fact that in the entire global history, there are no examples of a laissez-faire economy. Why is there no data available online from the 1929 Depression and its causes? Why are we not learning more from history and using the tools now available to analyze these events? ( )
  keylawk | Dec 2, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
...The rise of ancient Babylon was intimately tied to the evolution of credit and debt; without banks and the bond markets, the splendours of the Italian Renaissance would never have materialised; corporate finance was the foundation of the Dutch and later British empires; the ultra-sophisticated Wall Street financial engineering which has now come crashing down is intractably linked with America's global primacy. And now, of course, the new-found geopolitical power of many emerging economies, such as China, comes from their embrace of modern finance and creation of huge sovereign wealth funds.

Especially fascinating is Ferguson's discussion of the rush of intellectual innovation, beginning in the 1660s, that created the theoretical basis for life insurance, one of the most important financial inventions of all time...
...According to Ferguson, much of the current crisis stems from this increasingly uneasy symbiosis. It turns out “there was a catch. The more China was willing to lend to the United States, the more Americans were willing to borrow.” This cascade of easy money, he argues, “was the underlying cause of the surge in bank lending, bond issuance and new derivative contracts that Planet Finance witnessed after 2000. . . . And Chimerica — or the Asian ‘savings glut,’ as Ben Bernanke called it — was the underlying reason why the U.S. mortgage market was so awash with cash in 2006 that you could get a 100 percent mortgage with no income, no job or assets.” Going forward, the system seems likely to be increasingly unstable, as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson suggested recently when he warned that unless fundamental changes are made, “the pressure from global imbalances will simply build up again until it finds another outlet.”
...Ferguson's biography of finance, told with verve and insight, throws more light on our predicament than perhaps even he realises. The Ascent of Money charts the rise of money from clay tokens passed around the villages of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago to flickering numbers on a foreign exchange screen; yet it also reminds us that money represents a relationship of trust.

Ferguson argues persuasively that the development of money has gone hand in hand with the development of modern societies, by quickening transactions, loans and investment. He gives a selection of case studies, showing how money underpinned the colonisation of South America, Roosevelt's New Deal and the rise of China. Money doesn't make the world go round, but "it does make staggering quantities of people, goods and services go around the world"...
added by amorabunda | editThe Telegraph (Nov 6, 2008)
Niall Ferguson has written a brilliant book exploring the historic nexus between money, diplomacy, warfare and globalisation. It's called The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker 1849-1998. His new work, The Ascent of Money, written 10 years later, is an altogether different beast.

From its opening sentence - 'Bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, readies, the wherewithal: call it what you like, money matters' - you know this is a TV tie-in...
...There are a score of fascinating details. One example is how John Law managed to persuade the French to appoint him controller general of finances (sort of governor of the Bank of England and Chancellor of the Exchequer combined) and allow him to engineer the French financial bubble in 1720-21 that did far greater damage to French savings than the South Sea Bubble did to British finances at the same time. He describes how grand families, such as the Grevilles, were ruined by spendthrift heirs, while other new dynasties, notably the Rothschilds, were founded on a mixture of thrift, information and acumen.

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the book is Ferguson's ability to link the past with the present – particularly helpful right now. For example, he draws a parallel between international investment during the last great burst of globalisation from 1870 to 1914 and the massive international capital flows of the present global era...

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Bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, readies, the wherewithal,: call it what you like, money matters -- Introduction
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Niall Ferguson follows the money to tell the human story behind the evolution of finance, from its origins in ancient Mesopotamia to the latest upheavals. To Christians, love of it is the root of all evil. To generals, it's the sinews of war. To revolutionaries, it's the chains of labor. But historian Ferguson shows that finance is in fact the foundation of human progress. What's more, he reveals financial history as the essential backstory behind all history. Through Ferguson's expert lens, for example, the civilization of the Renaissance looks very different: a boom in the market for art and architecture made possible when Italian bankers adopted Arabic mathematics. The rise of the Dutch republic is reinterpreted as the triumph of the world's first modern bond market over insolvent Habsburg absolutism. Yet the central lesson of financial history is that, sooner or later, every bubble bursts.--From publisher description.… (more)

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