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Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

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Overview

A Business Week, New York Times Business, and USA Today Bestseller

"Ambitious and readable . . . an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers, whom Bernstein regards as true humanists helping to release mankind from the choke holds of superstition and fatalism." -The New York Times

"An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book." -The Wall Street Journal

"A lively panoramic book . . . Against the Gods sets up an ambitious premise and then delivers on it." -Business Week

"Deserves to be, and surely will be, ...

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Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

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Overview

A Business Week, New York Times Business, and USA Today Bestseller

"Ambitious and readable . . . an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers, whom Bernstein regards as true humanists helping to release mankind from the choke holds of superstition and fatalism." -The New York Times

"An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book." -The Wall Street Journal

"A lively panoramic book . . . Against the Gods sets up an ambitious premise and then delivers on it." -Business Week

"Deserves to be, and surely will be, widely read." -The Economist

"[A] challenging book, one that may change forever the way people think about the world." -Worth

"No one else could have written a book of such central importance with so much charm and excitement." -Robert Heilbroner author, The Worldly Philosophers

"With his wonderful knowledge of the history and current manifestations of risk, Peter Bernstein brings us Against the Gods. Nothing like it will come out of the financial world this year or ever. I speak carefully: no one should miss it." -John Kenneth Galbraith Professor of Economics Emeritus, Harvard University

In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today.

"An extremely readable history of risk." -Barron's

"Fascinating . . . this challenging volume will help you understand the uncertainties that every investor must face." -Money

"A singular achievement." -Times Literary Supplement

"There's a growing market for savants who can render the recondite intelligibly-witness Stephen Jay Gould (natural history), Oliver Sacks (disease), Richard Dawkins (heredity), James Gleick (physics), Paul Krugman (economics)-and Bernstein would mingle well in their company." -The Australian

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
What is it that distinguishes the thousands of years of history from what we think of as modern times? This is the question Peter L. Bernstein asks in the beginning of his new book, Against the Gods, and the answer put simply is...risk management.

Risk management? Well, that's not very poetic, is it? But as Bernstein points out, risk is essential to the development of our society; this is as true as the maxim 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' is old. But how did we discover the proper method for calculating insurance premiums in the first place? At what price should a crop future be set so as to be fair to both buyer and seller? It is questions like these that Bernstein, the author of a number of books on economics and finance, answers as he traces the emergence of risk management from calculating the probability of dice games to insuring investment portfolios.

Risk management by definition has to do with 'maximizing the areas where we have some control over the outcome while minimizing the areas where we have absolutely no control over the outcome and linkage between effect and cause is hidden from us.' But at the end of the day, a risk is still a risk no matter how carefully measured, so where does the time-honored 'gut feeling' come into play? This is the central question of Against the Gods, and the answers are enlightening.

We have Blaise Pascal and his probability triangle to thank for the birth of risk management. Pascal solidified the notion that there was a difference between playing games and thinking about playing games. His triangle of numbers is ageometric algebraic equation that can be employed to calculate, for instance, the odds that a team down one game to zero in the World Series has of coming back to win the pennant. (There are 22 combinations of wins and losses out of a possible 64 that the underdog will come back to win, by the way.) The problem with applying such calculations to real-life situations is that pure odds only work if each team has an equal chance of winning.

It wasn't until the Reformation that people began to that understand that they must take responsibility for their own decisions, and as Bernstein duly points out: 'Risk management only becomes possible when people are free agents.' So as awareness of self-determination spread, mathematicians put their minds to methods of determining risk while businessmen put their wallets towards using this information to limit risk.

It was in 1976, however, that one of the most highly developed forms of risk management heretofore imagined was spawned, from the mind of a Berkeley finance professor named Hayne Leland. For a premium, portfolio insurance guarded an investor against incurring huge losses in the stock market. Hayne had devised a scheme that severely limited the downside of the riskiest institution of all! For a time, everything went along gloriously for portfolio insurance, making millions for Leland, until the market crash of October 1987, when such huge losses could not be traded against the income of the premiums paid. At the end of the day, the best risk management failed in the face of the market's oldest precept: You cannot expect to make large profits without taking the risk of large losses. Related work was done by economists Robert C. Merton and Myron S. Scholes: For their mathematical theorems that accurately priced options (thereby drastically reducing the risk factor), they were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Their theory is explained in depth in Against the Gods.

I felt a growing sense of anticipation as I read this book, expecting that the progress of risk management would lead me directly to the best investment strategies available. And though the book indeed follows this path, risk management as we know it today stops well short of achieving a foolproof method of playing the market. More to the point, it is human nature that does not allow these measurements to limit risk. "Against the Gods" reads like a good piece of historical fiction in which the events, facts, and dates come alive in the midst of the personalities who effected them. Pascal, for example, renounced mathematics twice in his life, both times turning to religion. With the claim of Renunciation, total and sweet, he gave up high living in favor of the monastery, leaving the unsolved intricacies of managing risks to future generations. And perhaps it is well he did, for it seems that we adhere more to the blind faith, rules of thumb, experience, instinct, and conventions that make up our gut than to the results of risk analysis.—Woodall Taft is a freelance writer who resides near Silicon Valley.

From the Publisher
"...provides an excellent history about risk and it's vital role in markets." (Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2006)

“…an excellent book on what can be a dry subject…” (Financial World, 1st December 2005)

"A comprehensive history of man's efforts to understand risk and probability, from ancient gamblers in Greece to modern chaos theory." (The Washington Post Book World, September 20, 1998)

"I must say that I enjoyed the book, it was written in a light-hearted manner". (Money Matters, April 2001)

No. 7 bestseller in 'Risk' (erivativesreview.com, December 2001)

Wall Street Journal
An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book.
New York Times
Ambitious and readable. . .an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers.
John Kenneth Galbraith
With his wonderful knowledge of the history and current manifestations of risk, Peter Bernstein brings us Against the Gods. Nothing like it will come out of the financial world this year or ever. I speak carefully: no one should miss it..
Robert Heilbronerc
No one else could have written a book of such central importance with so much charm and excitement.
William Kristol
A fascinating and unusual perspective on modern man's Promethean attempt to master risk. The book reads easily and provokes thought—a rare combination.
Robert Ferguson
Peter Bernstein leads us effortlessly through the history of risk because he writes so beautifully. This is a book on a left brain subject that will have right brain readers lining up for more!.
Marc Faber
In Against the Gods, Peter Bernstein, a scholar, historian, and successful investor gives us the history of great thinkers whose visions put the future at the service of the present..
Barton M. Biggs
This looks like a new classic to me..
Charles P. Kindleberger
It's a sizzler!.
Washington Post Book World
Against The Gods appeared in the "Washington Is Also Reading..." section of The Washington Post Book World. The book is described as, "A comprehensive history of man's efforts to understand risk and probability, from ancient gamblers in Greece to modern chaos theory.
Money Matters
I must say that I enjoyed the book, it was written in a light-hearted manner"
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Risk management, which assumes that future risks can be understood, measured and to some extent predicted, is the focus of this solid, thoroughgoing history. Probability theory, pioneered by 17th-century French mathematicians Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, has made possible the design of great bridges, electric power utilities and insurance policies. The statistical sampling methods invented by dour Swiss scientist Jacob Bernoulli undergird diverse activities such as the testing of new drugs, stock-picking and wine tasting. Bernstein (Capital Ideas) animates his narrative with a colorful cast of risk-analyzers, including gambling addict Girolamo Cardano, 16th-century Italian physician to the Pope; and John Maynard Keynes, whose concerns over economic uncertainty compelled him to recommend an active, interventionist role for government. Bernstein also traces the development of business forecasting, game theory, insurance and derivatives, and surveys recent advances in risk forecasting made possible through chaos theory and by the development of neural networks.
Library Journal
For several centuries, mathematics has been the language of the exact sciences. Only in the 20th century has mathematics become predominant in other fields, particularly economics and finance. In this book, Bernstein (Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street), head of an economic consulting firm, traces the development of probability theory from its beginnings in analyzing games of chance, through its application to statistical theory and insurance, up to its present use in developing investment strategies to control risk. He includes excellent sections on portfolio analysis and on investments in derivatives. Bernstein clearly describes the people, their work, and the events that have revolutionized the thinking on Wall Street. -- Harold D. Shane, Baruch College, City University of New York
Library Journal
For several centuries, mathematics has been the language of the exact sciences. Only in the 20th century has mathematics become predominant in other fields, particularly economics and finance. In this book, Bernstein (Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street), head of an economic consulting firm, traces the development of probability theory from its beginnings in analyzing games of chance, through its application to statistical theory and insurance, up to its present use in developing investment strategies to control risk. He includes excellent sections on portfolio analysis and on investments in derivatives. Bernstein clearly describes the people, their work, and the events that have revolutionized the thinking on Wall Street. -- Harold D. Shane, Baruch College, City University of New York
The Wall Street Journal
An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book.
The New York Times
Ambitious and readable. . .an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471295631
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 9/14/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 121,424
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

PETER L. BERNSTEIN is President of Peter L. Bernstein, Inc., economic consultants to institutional advisors and corporations. His semimonthly analysis of the capital markets and the real economy, Economics and Portfolio Strategy, is read by managers and owners of investments totaling over one trillion dollars. Mr. Bernstein is the author of many articles in the professional and popular press, as well as six books in economics and finance, including the bestselling Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street. He is the coeditor of Investment Management (Wiley), and was the first editor of The Journal of Portfolio Management.

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Table of Contents

TO 1200: BEGINNINGS.

The Winds of the Greeks and the Role of the Dice.

As Easy As I, II, III.

1200-1700: A THOUSAND OUTSTANDING FACTS.

The Renaissance Gambler.

The French Connection.

The Remarkable Notions of the Remarkable Notions Man.

1700-1900: MEASUREMENT UNLIMITED.

Considering the Nature of Man.

The Search for Moral Certainty.

The Supreme Law of Unreason.

The Man with the Sprained Brain.

Peapods and Perils.

The Fabric of Felicity.

1900-1960: CLOUDS OF VAGUENESS AND THE DEMAND FOR PRECISION.

The Measure of Our Ignorance.

The Radically Distinct Notion.

The Man Who Counted Everything Except Calories.

The Strange Case of the Anonymous Stockbroker.

DEGREES OF BELIEF: EXPLORING UNCERTAINTY.

The Failure of Invariance.

The Theory Police.

The Fantastic System of Side Bets.

Awaiting The Wildness.

Notes.

Bibliography.

Indexes.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
Finance: What Is It, Why Is It, and Where Is It? by Peter L. Bernstein

Finance is a small word, but it covers a huge territory that includes markets, banking, corporate finance, the art of forecasting, accounting, taxation -- and more. In this universe, financial markets are the sun, a dazzling creation around which all the other activities rotate. I set the scene in this short essay, therefore, with some observations about markets before turning to the rest of the subject.

What is that frenzied activity in financial markets all about? Markets are places where buyers and sellers come together to do business; financial markets deal in money and risk. Financial markets are in the first instance a vehicle for financing governments and enterprises that need money. Beyond that, financial markets are a place where owners of outstanding assets can convert those assets into cash, or where owners of cash can find longer-term uses for their money. Financial markets thus give holders of assets with future cash flows the option of realizing the discounted value of those future cash flows in the present. In short, financial markets give investors the opportunity to change their minds, to reverse earlier decisions, at a cost and with a degree of immediacy that direct investment cannot provide. Think of the difference between buying 1,000 shares of IBM for a client and a house for your family.

Reversibility of decisions is the key element in risk. The reversibility provided by financial markets is their most important attribute. Financial markets are a kind of time machine that allows investors to compress the future into the present. Without financial markets, all assets would be buy-and-hold. Financial markets also provide tradable assets that directly hedge risk, by performing the remarkable function -- similar to insurance -- of reducing the holder's dependence on the markets to reverse decisions that might turn out unfavorably. Along the way, financial markets provide divisibility of outstanding issues, which means that investors can reduce risk even further through the invaluable device of diversification.

Through all these methods of reducing the risk of owning assets, financial markets lower the cost of capital and stimulate the spirit of enterprise. Recognizing these features of financial markets is essential to understanding the character of the risks and required returns of nonmarket sources of finance, such as banking, direct investment, and venture capital.

The impact of time on finance is not limited to markets. Time and finance are only opposite sides of the same coin. Finance means that those without cash can obtain cash today instead of waiting until tomorrow or the next day or the next. Thus, time is at the core of all aspects of finance, whether the transaction is in tradable or illiquid assets and whether it involves the sale of newly created financial assets or outstanding issues.

Finance is a service. We cannot touch, smell, or test-drive the next transaction we undertake. As a result, finance cannot operate without trust. Accounting, law, and regulation are indispensable features of a successful financial system. They come first. Finally, because finance is so involved with time, finance is about the future. This means that the study of finance must include techniques of forecasting combined with the valuation of future cash flows. But the future is unknown. So we also require the whole methodology of risk management for those occasions when forecasts turn out to be wrong.

The field is challenging, exciting in its development, and a place to make a fortune -- but also intensely competitive. It is also a fast-moving business: Like many other areas of our economy today, finance seems to be hit by innovation piled on innovation with extraordinary speed. You either keep in step or fall by the wayside. The work of academics and theoreticians in finance is now so closely joined to the efforts of practitioners that continuing education is essential for success.

Studying the literature cannot assure us of getting rich, but ignoring what the experts have to tell us has a high probability of dooming us to failure.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2013

    Approachable, with depth

    Excellent. The Nook version has several duplicated passages and some OCR errors, but the content seems complete.

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  • Posted May 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Lucid, accessible history of risk management

    This work is a minor classic of financial literature. Business historian Peter L. Bernstein wrote it during the early 1990s, when faith in the power of quantitative models and financial engineering was at its apex, and he tells a heroic story. Beginning with Greek mythology, Bernstein shows how cultural ideas about risk and probability evolved through Arab mathematics, the European Enlightenment and Chicago School economics. He writes in a spare, straightforward style, and manages to convey the essentials of financial theory and the essences of great economists without losing the reader in a maze of equations. Of course, the 2008 financial crisis cast probabilistic models and financial engineering as global market villains. In retrospect, that makes Bernstein's evident admiration for those models seem rather touchingly ingenuous. Nonetheless, getAbstract finds that this is still one of the best popular introductions to the development of financial science.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2008

    Individual investor

    one of the best investing books ever written. whether you are a novice or a pro this book should be in everyones top 5 investor books. Fantastic overview of the overwhelming complexity of todays markets. Allows one to understand risk and how it relates to the our everyday lives pertaining to money. Mr. Bernstein lays it out very clearly what your odds are playing the stock market.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2007

    Excellent

    Bernstein strikes again - even better than his history of gold. Great stuff.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2000

    A must-read for first time investors

    Before plunking any money into any investment, read this book first. It may seem more of a chronology of probability and statistics at first, but stick with it. More importantly, this book will help you understand risk so you go into investments with both eyes open. This book would be a 'must-read' even if it did not venture into applications to the stock market. It is well researched and written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2000

    Mischievous analysis of the history of captialism

    A great read... much more provocative and satisfying than some of the Longitude-style attempts at reasssessing big history. Bernstein looks at society and the growth of modern capitalism using the lode stone of risk, mixing math and history in an extraordinarily original way.

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    Posted November 12, 2008

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