The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

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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 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

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
The Barnes & Noble Review
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594201929
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/13/2008
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 219,975
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus, he also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world. Since 2003 he has written and presented three highly successful television documentary series for British television: Empire, American Colossus, and, most recently, The War of the World.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Dreams of Avarice 17

2 Of Human Bondage 65

3 Blowing Bubbles 119

4 The Return of Risk 176

5 Safe as Houses 230

6 From Empire to Chimerica 283

Afterword: The Descent of Money 341

Notes 363

List of Illustrations 399

Index 403

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 98 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2008

    I Also Recommend:


    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. <BR/><BR/>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. <BR/><BR/>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. <BR/><BR/>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. <BR/><BR/>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. <BR/><BR/>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! <BR/><BR/>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

    10 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 20, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Money makes the world go round

    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.<BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/>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 :)

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good history lesson with frustrating commentary.

    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:

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2014



    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013

    Lively and informative!

    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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  • Posted May 9, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Superficial, over-hyped

    This is a lively but superficial history of finance. Niall Ferguson surveys the evolution of credit and debt from ancient Mesopotamia to the Medicis in Renaissance Florence to the corporate finance bases of the Dutch, British and American empires. His chapters trace the rise of money and credit, the bond market, the stock market, insurance, the real estate market, and the rises and falls of international finance. Ferguson never asks where the money comes from, never asks who produces the world's wealth. Maybe he knows the truth - the world's workers produce the wealth and the world's capitalists nick it. Argentina's default in 2001 was the biggest in history. 500,000 creditors had to accept new bonds worth 35 cents on the dollar. As Ferguson writes, "So successful did its default prove (economic growth has since surged .) that many economists were left to ponder why any sovereign debtor ever honours its commitments to foreign bondholders." Default really is good for you - unless you are a bondholder. Ferguson points out, "It's not owning property that gives you security; it just gives your creditors security. Real security comes from having a steady income." Capitalism can't achieve this - witness the 20 per cent youth unemployment here and the 45 per cent youth unemployment in Spain. Countries, like individuals, need to have a diversified portfolio of assets, and must not put all their eggs into one basket, as Ireland did with its insane property bubble and bust. Ferguson is so love in capitalism that he skates over its huge bubbles and busts, its vast injustices, its dependence on exploiting the great majority of the world's people, and the huge extent of world poverty.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2010

    Very informative

    Throughout the book credit, debt, banking, insurance, investments, entrepreneurship and much more is discussed. The historic developments of these financial aspects are all described. For example Ferguson explains the first records of inflation when the Incas were forced to dig metal to make coins for Europeans, However the more they dug the less value it had. He also recollects the first type of stock market crash, run by the French, struck a financial crisis in Louisiana, and how one crash can affect the world. This book covers the historic aspects of finance in major depth allowing the reader to truly understand why the economy is currently run the way it is.

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  • Posted September 21, 2010

    Truly fascinating

    There are the few who strive for perfection. Niall transcends the treshold of normalcy by going above and beyond any expectation us lay-people could conjure. With interviews of Soros, Griffin, Volker and many more, and a host of acknowledgements to boot a wildly marvelous display of information prescient to the dilemma of numismatics, this text is absolutely necessary for anyone who enjoys being a student of facts. I can only say that I wish he hadn't edited, so I could learn more.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Compelling and Relevant Read for Those Interested in Finance with a Penchant for Historical Context

    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.

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  • Posted June 16, 2010

    Required reading

    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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  • Posted March 13, 2010

    Most enlightening!

    This book has helped me understand how the banking system, wall street and complex financial products and services evolved over the years. I recommend it to anyone that would like to better understand the origins of our recent financial debacle.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2010

    How Money Works

    Ferguson provides a thorough analysis of the history of money, including banks, stocks, bonds, insurance, and real estate. He provides the context for understanding current financial challenges for the US and world economy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    If you would like to understand how we got the concept of money that we take from granted today, you should read this book.

    It is a very interesting book, not an original idea, but explains how the financial institutions and monetary concepts of today's world began and developed until the deep complexity of the today's market.

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  • Posted January 30, 2010

    Great airplane read ...

    ... or readable anywhere for that matter. Accessible, easy "first background" "Money 101" tome.

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  • Posted January 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The title says it all

    Another tour de force of world history, this time focusing on financial history, a topic that everyone who has been hit in some way by the current recession should be looking into. Once again going against the grain, Ferguson argues that money and the subsequent institutions and promissory notes that have been used to save or create more money are the keys to national wealth and expansion, not their destruction. In fact, whenever he traces the rise and fall of vast fortunes throughout history, it only serves to add to his argument that constantly evolving financial markets pave the roads towards progress. His narrative on chapter two about the French bond market bubble in the early 18th century is a good example of this. However, where Ferguson stumbles, in my opinion, is in his lack of explanation regarding basic economic terms and principles. He knows what he's subject and I got most of what he was saying, but there were times I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what he was talking about. If you don't know anything about business or economics, I recommend borrowing a basic econ. textbook or a dictionary on business and econ. terms. In conclusion, this is a wonderful book on the financial history of the world and very pertinent for our times.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Book

    I liked the information that the book provided.

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  • Posted December 20, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Taught Me Some Finance in a Nice History of Finance

    I am a fan of non-fiction, but I do like a good story. This book will take you on the story of money and how it has developed from precious metal to paper to an idea. Following money like it were a person, you learn something about how important it has been and still is, what it is supposed to do can what it can do.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    Money Talks!!!!

    In this book you will learn the evolution of greed!!!!

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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    checks and balances

    I think this book is good reading for macroeconomics and accounting.

    I can't put it down.

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  • Posted August 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    What is money really?

    I will not pretend to be an expert economist. I only suggest anyone who wishes to understand economics read this book. Had I read this book before taking so many a painful classes, I would have been better off. After reading this book, you can easily understand supply and demand as well as the creation and management of credit.

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