The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
  • The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
  • The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

3.7 97
by Niall Ferguson

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"Bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, readies, the wherewithal: Call it what you like, it matters. 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 in The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson shows that finance is in fact the foundation of human progress. What's more, he…  See more details below


"Bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, readies, the wherewithal: Call it what you like, it matters. 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 in The Ascent of Money, Niall 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 familiar historical landmarks appear in a new and sharper financial focus. Suddenly, 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. And the origins of the French Revolution are traced back to a stock market bubble caused by a convicted Scot murderer." With the clarity and verve for which he is known, Ferguson elucidates key financial institutions and concepts by showing where they came from. What is money? What do banks do? What's the difference between a stock and a bond? Why buy insurance or real estate? And what exactly does a hedge fund do?

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Editorial Reviews

Shelby Coffey III
The pleasure of reading Ferguson's treatment comes partly from the clarity of his explanations of financial concepts but mostly from his pen portraits of the extravagantly gifted and flawed characters who have led money's long rise. He shows us how far we have come since Mesopotamian moneylenders developed rudimentary accounting around 1,000 B.C. and the Medici created elements of modern banking in 14th- and 15th-century Florence…an admirably illuminating book that will take its place beside such modern classics as John Train's The Money Masters, Peter L. Bernstein's Against the Gods, and Adam Smith's Supermoney.
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
…the book as a whole is animated by Mr. Ferguson's narrative gifts, among them his ability to discuss complex ideas in user-friendly terms. He also has a knack for illustrating his larger hypotheses with colorful stories about people like Nathan Rothschild (the subject of one of his earlier books); the Scottish economist and gambler John Law (described as "the man who invented the stock market bubble"); and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and his so-called Chicago Boys
—The New York Times
Library Journal

With global financial markets experiencing severe turbulence, Harvard historian Ferguson (The Pity of War) presents a timely history of money and finance from the advent of coins to J.P Morgan Chase's takeover of Bear Stearns earlier this year. He describes humanity's major financial innovations such as banks, bonds, joint stock companies, insurance, and property ownership as well as the pitfalls of inflation, recessions, and asset bubbles. Ferguson finishes by discussing the various iterations of globalization over the past 100 years and one of the newest and currently most notorious financial developments: hedge funds. He keeps his story interesting with humor and unexpected twists such as how a fund to provide for the widows of Scottish clergymen laid the foundations for modern insurance theory. Commenting on the safety normally ascribed to investing in property, he observes ironically that the only real security entailed is for lenders who in the event of loan defaults can seize properties. Though not comprehensive in scope, Ferguson's lighthearted but thoughtful stroll through financial history is a welcome and recommended addition for public libraries and undergraduate collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/08.]
—Lawrence Maxted

A. C. Grayling
Money, says the song, makes the world go round. It can also threaten to stop it. Thus, a book that explains the origin and growth of money, banks, stock markets, and the exotic growth of the financial instruments and institutions that often bewilder even those who live by them, is a valuable thing. Despite the fact that Niall Ferguson finished writing The Ascent of Money in the late spring of 2008, while the international financial crisis was still gathering momentum, this is a highly relevant book. Not the least of its merits is that Ferguson shows how alert he was to the possibilities for disaster inherent in the loose credit and securitization of bad debt from which so much money was made before the crisis unfolded. His was an alertness made possible by a grasp of history; Ferguson thereby vindicates the utility as well as the beauty of his craft.

The story, a fascinating one, covers 4,000 years. Money is the concrete expression of the relationship between lenders and borrowers -- it is the embodiment of debt made tradeable -- and it gave rise to banks, which in turn gave a vast boost to the development of credit. From medieval times to the present, the Darwinian evolution (as Ferguson convincingly characterizes it) of money and markets proceeded at an increasing pace and sophistication. Bonds came first, from the 13th century onward securitizing revenue from interest. The 17th-century Dutch invented equity in corporations in the form of shares carrying limited liability. In the 17th and 18th centuries, economies of scale and an understanding of mathematical probability yielded protection against risk in the form of insurance and pension funds. The 19th century saw the rise of the first derivatives in the form of options and futures. In the20th century individuals were encouraged to redirect their portfolios toward real estate, accepting the need for greatly increased leverage to do so.

Ferguson points out that the economies where all these things happened -- that is, the property-owning democracies with banks, bonds and stock markets, and insurance cover -- have consistently performed better than other economies. Or rather: at least until now. But in the last couple of decades there has been a "Cambrian explosion" of new types of financial services and assets and a seemingly boundless appetite for asset-backed securities, not least mortgages. Perhaps the long roots of this lay in the collapse of the Bretton Woods control of capital movements in the early 1970s, following which the globalization of financial dealings has mushroomed, aided by substantial deregulation in the 1990s and since. The result has been a huge bubble, the pricking of which we are now witnessing.

In fact there have been scores of periodic financial crises in recent history, as Ferguson shows, illustrating the inherent volatility of the financial markets, in which greed and -- when greed has over-gorged itself -- fear are the principal sentiments. One thing Ferguson's book emphatically shows is that the new concept of "behavioral economics" provides a far better description of what happens in the markets than any of the theories previously mooted, including the fancy mathematical models that were supposed to make investment foolproof. These latter depended upon the markets being rational and predictable; history shows that matters are otherwise.

There is a good deal of riveting information here about the buildup to the current crisis, in discussions of the Enron scandal, the way speculators such as George Soros make their money, the unparalleled mushrooming of securitized debt obligations that -- because so many of them are of such poor quality -- has rocked previously secure banks to their foundations around the world. Ferguson describes what went wrong with Long Term Capital Management, the once-so-successful investment company that failed despite the intricacy of its model and spread of its assets. Because, Ferguson points out, its managers knew too little history, they learned the hard way John Maynard Keynes's insight that in times of crisis, "markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent."

Not only is there much that is instructive and illuminating in Ferguson's account, there is much that is absorbing. Until you begin reading you might not imagine how engrossing a book about the history of money and finance can be. The story of money's origins, of the Italian Renaissance cities, of the founding and operation of the first limited liability company in the Netherlands, of the Rothschild banking dynasty's rise in the 19th century, of what caused the Great Depression, of the turn to house-owning debt, of today's massive and perhaps unhealthy symbiosis between borrowing America and lending, cheaply manufacturing China to make "Chimerica" with most of the world's money and population in it, make an altogether gripping tale. --A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. Among his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

From the Publisher
"There is an ease to [Ferguson's] prose that leaves this complicated subject interesting to and approachable by any general [listener]." —Booklist Starred Review

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
" Before regulators throw block trades, bond swaps, bridge financing, butterfly spreads and Black-Scholes out with the bathwater, they should find time to read Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money."
-The Wall Street Journal

"[An] excellent, just in time guide to the history of finance and financial crisis."
-The Washington Post

" Shrewdly anticipates many aspects of the current financial crisis, which has toppled banks, precipitated gigantic government bailouts and upended global markets."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

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Ascent of Money 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 98 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Niall Ferguson has published another sweeping book, this time in his purported field of expertise in financial history, not in political economic history, where he had most famously written 'The War of the World.' For that one must be grateful, since his neo-imperialistic views, sensational support of empires and subjugation, and controversial justifications of Nazism, were just too jarring.

Here he makes an ambitious attempt to tell the whole story of finance. It begins in Mesopotamia and ends in the credit crisis of 2008. The title is a play off the title of Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man. Overall it is a considerably worse book than Birth of Plenty by William Bernstein, and even more so when compared to Empire of Wealth, a recent book on economic history. It cannot replace Peter Bernstein's trilogy, including Against the Gods, Gold and Capital Ideas. It lacks the details of Vincent Carruso's Investment Banking in America or other detailed tales of financial history. Yet it lacks synthesis too, certainly when compared to Birth of Plenty or Bernstein's trilogy.It is worth buying though, hence the 4 stars, but only for a quick jog through history, not for an understanding of it.

The book does not delve deep into the details, which is its weakness. It does not give a bird's eye view either, because the vignettes he chooses, the facts he emphasizes, and the stories he stresses are generally the unimportant ones. That flaw is not only true of ancient finance, about which he may not be an expert, but also so of medieval and modern financial history, an area in which he should have better selected the stories he chose to emphasize.

What the author ends up doing is overemphasizing stories about the Rothschilds, who he covered in a bio years ago, or about current events, including ones about the current credit crisis, which seems oddly placed (and likely added at the last minute, once the markets collapsed and the book likely appeared too optimistic). There are at least two references to the compensation of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, anecdotes which would be out of place in any serious history of finance. Then there are the detailed discussions about some obtuse scandal in Britain but hardly the same space to Enron or Milken or other scandals which have plagued history.

Not only is the selection of stories poorly done but the level of the narrative also fluctuates between sweeping statements unsupported by the facts (a habit of Niall Ferguson) or minute details about this or that, very often irrelevant to boot, leaving the book appear put together in a hurry (which too is a longstanding weakness of the author). There is the mathematical formula of the Black-Sholes, which seems out of place in a short history of finance, and especially so since the author claims he does not even understand what it means. The points made could surely have been driven home without the formula.

Third and worst still is the decision of the author (or his research assistant) to summarize issues into five or six bullet points, a la a McKinsey presentation. This occurs in several places, with paragraph headings (!) and summaries, a style unsuitable for a history book, and truly not even used by newspapers. One does not buy a book to rush through issues in bullet points!

Fourth, the author has tacked onto the end of the book a note about the Descent of Finance. Clearly he does so to tone down the story, to fit the current collapse
Amanda_Barry More than 1 year ago
you are like me, the recent financial crisis has forced you to rethink what money is, how it works, and how global economic trends affect when and how currency moves about. This timely book explains the origin and growth of money, banks, stock markets.

Ferguson shows us that the typical Wall Street logic of looking back the twenty or thirty years only the most experienced investors lived through is not enough to improve our current position. Ferguson says the only way to solve our financial crisis is to put the origin of money and financial strain in its proper historical context. It is far too late to be discussing expensive houses and cheap credit. We need to look way way back to understand the wreckage of banks, brokers and hedge funds that litters the markets. He shows us that looking back is the way to know what to do next. Otherwise, it'll be another new bubble down the road that leaves us scratching our heads after it pops.

Read Ferguson's book and you'll better understand the possibilities for disaster inherent in the loose credit and securitization of bad debt from which so much money was made before the crisis unfolded. His grasp of history vindicates his profession and brings an understated beauty to money.

The other book I read this week that I also recommend very strongly is The Emotional Intelligence Quick Book. Let's just say it makes it a little easier for me to watch the market, and in a little better mood around my husband when I come home from work :)
JesseJ07 More than 1 year ago
I picked up The Ascent of Money on a whim, not knowing who Niall Ferguson is or what other books he's written I figured a history lesson on financial systems could make for an interesting read. Overall, it was interesting. Ferguson gives a terrific overview of the history of finance, roughly from the 17th century through to today, and presents the various achievements of different regions in a mostly chronological order, only breaking chronology a few times to connect events which he does superbly. The beginning of the book presented much new information to me that I found to be very intriguing; I have always viewed the history of finances and money as something that would be confusing to me and difficult to sort out, but here in The Ascent of Money Ferguson has done the research and made a cohesive textbook worthy lesson of financial history. What bothers me about this book is the commentary, sometimes cloaked in ambiguity, which is sprinkled throughout the book and especially in the later chapters. Ferguson does a good job showing the disasters that loose credit and fiat money can cause in an economic system but fails to apply his own lesson while analyzing the great depression, S&L crisis, or our current economic crises. He seems to gloss over fractional reserve banking as merely part of the evolution and "the ascent of money" thus neglecting its fraudulent nature. The strangest thing to me is that throughout the book's lessons there seemed to be some very easy diagnoses to the various disasters discussed that Ferguson almost missed completely- that is the cause was various governments meddling in the supply and control of money. Some of the time Ferguson did make this observation, although scantily analyzing it, but seems to think that when war broke and one financial system usurped another that was the end of the story- even though another economic disaster came after that for similar reasons. There is hardly any discussion on gold, and none on how a commodity based monetary system could have loosed the stranglehold oppressive regimes had on their subjects or prevented or minimized the economic damage. It's very possible that I let my own bias interfere with my enjoyment of this book. As I said, the history lesson was great and much needed for me; but the commentary made the book quite frustrating toward the end. My own bias may have further been exacerbated by Ferguson's own bias- that is, of all the economists and schools of thought sited throughout The Ascent of Money there is a very noticeable lack of a certain set of economists. Nowhere in the book are the names Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and F.A. Hayek introduced, nor is the Austrian school of economics even uttered. By citing Keynes/Krugman numerously or Friedman some, Ferguson gives a very one sided analysis outside of his own- and his entire exclusion of the Austrian school economists, of whom Hayek won the Nobel Prize for his contribution of business cycle theory, leaves one to question how much more interesting or important this book could have been. If you're looking for a book to help you understand the current crises we face, and who to blame, do not look here- this is just a good history lesson and not a whole lot more- you should read Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse by Tom Woods. I recommend reading Power and Market:
JSIII More than 1 year ago
An "In the beginning..." to present day tour of the evolution of the exchange medium we call money. The story also expands to cover banking and the insurance industry to round out the perspective. Ferguson has the gift of engaging narrative that compels you to take this historical journey with him. You will have fun but will also learn about world events and culture as they were and are affected by banking and finance. You will not look at national and international events the same way again once you understand the nexus between these events and money.
David_A_Bassett More than 1 year ago
In this acclaimed bestseller, The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson attempts the splendid, but impossible task of his subtitle: A Financial History of the World. Early in the book the author makes two important points, the first is, "Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret." (page 4). The second is that most of us are woefully undereducated when it comes to finances and financial history. These two points are brought together time and again as the author describes how crises have been worsened by financial experts not being aware of the history of finance. Young financial operators can not have deep personal experience of anything but the recent financial history. Without training in the financial history of the world they can walk into a crisis wearing blinders. This may have been a contributor to the financial crises of 2008. Understanding financial history is important for the rest of us so we might better understand the current political and economic situation and how it affects our own personal financial health. In that regard this book is a wealth of information about the origins of money, lending, banking, bonds, stocks, insurance, derivatives, and their intertwined histories. The timing of this publication and its accompanying television program is perfect for catching the public hunger for an explanation of the causes behind the financial crisis. The history of these instruments and institutions is brought right up to the original publication date of 2007, with additions made for the 2009 paperback edition. Unfortunately it is difficult to write a complete and authoritative history of events while they are unfolding. Hopefully the current financial environment will settle into a more stable pattern and Prof Ferguson will undertake a more extensively revised second edition. With over 400 pages this is not a small book, but some of the chapters could be still afford to be expanded to fill in more details of the events he describes. At times the prose is a bit thick and some sentence structure is a bit convoluted. There are places where the text is written with asides, footnotes and endnote references with subtext along with citations. It can be like listening to the table conversation of a group of scholars who are all talking at the same time. Perhaps it was taken from a conversational style more suited to the TV program. This could be corrected by taking the literary space to expand the explanations for easier digestion on the part of the reader. The six chapters have an average of 54 pages. This seems too long for a general interest reader. The chapters could be expanded for fuller treatment and divided into subchapters for easier digestion. If an expanded second edition is undertaken there are several other pieces of academic paraphernalia that would contribute to the accessibility of the information in this book. Addition of a bibliography would provide easier access to the citations. A glossary of terms would help those of us who are trying to learn this for the first time. An appendix of names with brief biographies would help readers understand the personalities involved without interrupting the flow of the text. Karl Marx is mentioned at a few points in the book, but only in passing. Perhaps in an expanded second edition, room can also be made for an answer to the communist critique of capitalist finance.
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A sweeping look at the development and power of money throughout history. Accompany this with Jerry Z. Muller's "The Mind and the Market."
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