Money, Greed, and Risk: Why Financial Crises and Crashes Happen

Money, Greed, and Risk: Why Financial Crises and Crashes Happen

4.0 1
by Charles R. Morris

The world seems awash in financial crises. The Asian crisis of 1998, the near-demise of Long Term Capital Management, and the black hole of Russia are just a few of the most recent. Are they the result of greedy speculators, crony capitalism, or the warp speed of the forces of globalization? Can we send in the repairman and get things fixed through the legal and


The world seems awash in financial crises. The Asian crisis of 1998, the near-demise of Long Term Capital Management, and the black hole of Russia are just a few of the most recent. Are they the result of greedy speculators, crony capitalism, or the warp speed of the forces of globalization? Can we send in the repairman and get things fixed through the legal and regulatory systems?

Or are other causes at work that may be beyond our control?

Money, Greed, and Risk is that rare book which, through adroit analysis of both historical and contemporary events and their leading players, lends new insights into the causes of financial turmoil. Charles Morris:

  • Explores the eternal cycle of financial crises: from brilliant innovation to gross excess and inevitable crash, before investors and institutions catch up.

  • Explains why the American financial system grew from a capital-starved backwater in the nineteenth century to one that plays the leading role in the world today.

  • Examines the technological, economic, demographic, and industrial experiences that caused the financial engine to kick into such high gear in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Shows how the boom-and-bust cycle in early American history helps illuminate recent events in South Asia and Russia. In the process we become more realistic about what to expect during the nascent stages of capitalism and market development everywhere.

  • Explains that globalization is nothing new. The investment system in the nineteenth century was perhaps even more global than the world today.

  • Looks at contemporary financialgeniuses—Michael Milken is a good example—and shows that they didn't invent any financial instruments that nineteenth-century counterparts like Jay Gould hadn't already thought of.

There are a handful of books about finance and the financial markets that are substantive enough to provide intellectual grist for sophisticated investors while also providing intriguing explanations of contemporary events that will be of interest to a general audience. Money, Greed, and Risk is one of them.

Finance is the plumbing that makes capitalism run. And, like a good plumbing system, finance is invisible when working well. But just as a broken pipe can be a disaster, so too when the financial system breaks and crises and crashes occur. We look to understand the causes and Charles Morris provides unusual insights that bring our understanding to a new level.

Editorial Reviews

Robert J. Samuelson
Morris seeks to demystify the murky relationship between finance and the real economy. To this task he brings rare qualifications. He's both a market player and a first-rate writer.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Morris's idiosyncratic excursion into the ups and downs of the business cycle is a series of appetizers rather than a meal. He takes the professional's-eye view that market crashes reveal systemic defects rather than moral failings of economic movers and shakers: greed is good as long as it is properly channeled and controlled. Crashes occur, Morris (Computer Wars, etc.) persuasively argues, when financial innovations are too successful and prod the market to expand too fast. While he discusses the American crises of the 1830s, 1870s and 1890s, as well as the 1980s, he barely touches on the crash of 1929 and ignores entirely the Cotton Panic of 1837, probably the worst financial crisis in American history. With a stoical dispassion unlikely to soothe those whose nest eggs are currently nestled in NASDAQ, he sees crashes as necessary, if painful and unfortunate, corrections to excess. The most penetrating question, he suggests, is not about why a market crashes but rather how prices were allowed to get so high in the first place. Most chapters will be easily understood by anyone who has ever played Monopoly, but the "Options" appendix assumes the reader recognizes, for example, the cumulative Gaussian distribution function. This well-written book can be enjoyed as a brief lesson in financial history or as a warning of a correction to come. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's not just the simple cupidity of investors; there must be a better reason for the cycle of market emergencies. Longtime financial writer Morris (The AARP and You: How America's Most Powerful Lobby Got That Way, and What It Means to You, 1996, etc.) thinks he has the answer.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

The world is awash in financial crises as this book is going to press. Japan's banking system is wallowing in $1 trillion of bad loans; the currencies of the erstwhile East Asian "Tiger" economies are barely worth their weight in wallpaper; Russia is disappearing down a black hole; and most of Latin America--Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, even straitlaced Chile--is teetering on the brink. The United States has so far escaped the worst of the crises, but fiascos like the collapse of Long Term Capital Management have kept its financial markets frazzled and jumpy.

It is usually easy to understand why a business gets in trouble--its cars or computers cost too much or aren't as good as the competition's. But financial crises seem to arise out of nowhere, driven by mysterious forces and agencies--"globalization," "derivatives," "junk bonds," "foreign speculators." In the 1960s, it was the "gnomes of Zurich," while in most other eras, and still today in the mind of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, it was always "the Jews."

Finance operates in the murky depths of the economy. Like a plumbing system, it is invisible when it is working well, but a broken pipe can be a disaster. Occasionally, a catchy name impels some aspect of finance into the public imagination. Jay Leno fans all knew there was a junk-bond crisis in the late 1980s, but few people heard of the CMO crash about five years later, although it was much bigger. Home buyers certainly knew that mortgage rates were rising sharply, but few would have understood why.

Although the jargon changes, one generation's financial crisis is often much like the next's. "Globalization" is the buzzword for the 1990s, butnineteenth-century investing was at least as global, and the currency crises in late-nineteenth-century America followed courses broadly similar to the recent ones in Mexico and East Asia. Investors also reacted about as quickly then as they do now, although it took longer to execute instructions--you couldn't ship bullion at the flick of a computer mouse. In both the 1870s and the 1890s, however, the reversal of capital flows from Europe to America was still brutally abrupt. The complexity of financing the railroads after the Civil War matches any that investment bankers solve today. Michael Milken didn't invent any financial instruments that Jay Gould hadn't already thought of, and Gould could also have given lessons to Indonesia's President Suharto in fleecing overseas investors. When J. P. Morgan stepped into the American crisis of the 1890s, his prescriptions were a lot like those of today's IMF.

Finance is a relatively late arrival in economic history. The Amsterdam Exchange of the early seventeenth century is probably the first recognizably modern financial market, with trading in company shares, government bonds, and a wide range of futures and options. Hard on the heels of proto-modern markets came John Law's Mississippi Company fiasco in Paris, and the South Sea Bubble in London, both of which cast shadows over national financial practice for a century or more. The link between financial innovation and crisis was there from the start.

Almost all primitive societies used some kind of money. The active trading culture of the Indians of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, for example, was mostly conducted by barter, but was often facilitated by the use of colored beads, or wampum, as an intertribal currency. In practice, taking beads for something as valuable as a steel ax would have been very risky, for as Lewis and Clark found to their chagrin, different tribes had quite different notions of the value of wampum, and many scorned it as a substitute for really valuable goods, like rifles and powder.

The path from money to finance is one of successive abstraction. The European analogue to bead wampum was gold and silver, the so-called precious metals, which were used to facilitate trade from the very earliest times. Over the course of several millennia, people became so accustomed to denominating traded goods in precious metals that the metal equivalent gradually became the measure of the value of the goods, rather than the other way around--which Indians would have found odd. Deciding that real wealth consists in inert metals, rather than in the goods they may temporarily represent, is an extremely useful trick, for then the metals can act as a long-term store of value in a way that perishable goods cannot. Money as a store of value is but a step away from the notion of money as capital, which is where finance begins.

Even in the high Middle Ages, the notion of money as finance capital was radical enough to earn the condemnation of the church. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas proved, citing Aristotle, that the natural purpose of money was as a medium of exchange, not as a store of value, from which it followed that the lending of money at interest, or usury, was unnatural and sinful. Aquinas was not a stupid man, and seen through his eyes, the conclusion is not so bizarre. The primary enterprises of medieval Europe were military adventure and religious display, and the primary forms of wealth were labor and land. The whole feudal system of vassal and liege was a vast machinery for putting manpower and land directly at the disposal of the nobility and the clergy to build castles and cathedrals and to wage war and stage ceremonies. Feudalism, in effect, was a comprehensive, but nonmonetary, capital assemblage system. Money was needed mostly for the purposes of exchange in international trade, more or less as Aquinas said. Even in Augustan Rome, which was a much more sophisticated society, money seems similarly to have been used mostly for trade. The capital required to build aqueducts and roads was simply dragooned.

Modern finance capitalism is a creature of the vast expansion of trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Trade was highly profitable, and a merchant could obviously get richer if he could put more ships to sea than his private means would allow. The logical step was to borrow the money to finance more cargoes. Usury laws were still in effect, so almost all lenders were Jews; and to assuage a Christian merchant's conscience, the loans were often couched as the purchase of a partnership, or as insurance. It was common for a lender to advance the funds for a cargo at a high rate of interest, but if the ship was lost, the loss fell on the lender. (The same classification cat-and-mouse game goes on today, but to minimize taxes rather than the risk of damnation.) Usury laws gradually fell into desuetude, and richer merchants went into the lending business themselves. As feudal obligations were replaced by monetary contracts, it was an easy step from financing cargoes to financing kings. Kings now often had to rely on foreign troops, and they insisted on being paid in cash.

Financing a cargo with a trade credit--paying with a mere promise instead of with hard money--was a conceptual leap almost as important as the original substitution of money for actual goods. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, and later the burghers of Amsterdam, gradually transmuted the system of trade credits into a highly polished financial machine--certificates of credit were traded freely, as if it were the certificate that was the item of value. In principle, however, all credits were still a claim on some goods, or later, as credits were extended to sovereigns, on the king's taxing power.

The magic of credit is that a thought (credere, "to believe") creates wealth. Before the system of paper credits, trade was transacted in coin, which is heavy and easily stolen or clipped, or more frequently by barter. Barter voyages could stretch to ten years or more, as merchants plied from port to port, seeking just the right goods. The expansion of trade enabled by paper credit underpinned regional and national specialization, commodity agriculture, the growth of manufacturing centers, the industrial revolution.

Financing American railroads required another huge leap of abstraction. Instead of a claim on a cargo of cotton, investors received a vaguely defined share in the future success of a private enterprise. To wags, it looked like a repeat of the eighteenth-century South Sea Bubble fiasco. As enterprise became more complex, the nature of the claim, and the rights of various classes of claimants, became ever more problematic, the more so since the business corporation was itself a legal anomaly well into the nineteenth century.

Sorting through these myriad issues in America was largely accomplished in the three or four decades following the Civil War, when the financial industry assumed more or less the same contours and divisions of labor that define it today. Jay Gould, whose name has become synonymous with rapaciousness, gets too little credit for shaping it. But it was J. P. Morgan who set the stage for the vast American industrial expansion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when he took railroad financing into his own capable hands and created the rules that made private-company investing safe for the wealthy classes.

By the time of the Great War, the entire economy was monetizing. Hired labor on a family farm could be paid mostly in kind, but industrial workers received cash wages, and the monetary holdings of a new, broadly based middle class gradually became the primary source of finance capital. Transmuting millions of small pools of household savings into usable capital for commercial, industrial, and consumer finance became the primary task of financial services and opened boundless opportunities to fleece the unwary. Stock jobbers gleefully worked over the middle classes, until the New Deal reform government developed the regulatory, accounting, and disclosure apparatus to make investing safe for the proverbial prudent man or woman.

The story of finance is therefore one of innovation, crisis, and consolidation. Industrial, commercial, or technological change calls forth an innovation--paper trade credits, private-company stocks and bonds, retail stock markets, junk bonds, collateralized mortgage obligations, derivative instruments. In every case, the innovation solves an immediate problem--expanding trade, financing railroads, restructuring companies, stabilizing pension portfolios--and also triggers a period of greatly increased risk and instability, until institutions catch up. The cycles are as apparent today as they were two hundred years ago. Even many of the instruments are the same.

The first three chapters illustrate the cycle of innovation, crisis, and consolidation in America from the early nineteenth century through the market crash of 1929. The remainder of the book traces the operation of the same cycle in modern markets through six other crises--the S&L crisis of the 1980s; the junk-bond crisis; computerized trading and the crash of 1987; derivatives; the mortgage-backed crisis of 1994; and the Mexican and East Asian currency crises. As will be seen, events follow the same broad pattern today as always--currency crises are still currency crises--but move breathtakingly faster.

Meet the Author

Charles R. Morris has many highly praised books to his credit, ranging from Computer Wars (on the fall of IBM) to American Catholic (on the rise of the American Catholic Church). He has published his opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and the Harvard Business Review. He was for many years managing partner of a consulting firm specializing in the financial-services and investment-banking industries, and was also a group executive at Chase Manhattan bank.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Money, Greed, and Risk 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this book Charles R. Morris examines the causes of financial growth of the U. S. economy since 1800 and explains how, as the economy expanded, a financial system developed to facilitate industrialization, trade and further economic development. The author offers interesting observations on recent crises such as, the junk bonds of the l980s, the S&L bank failures, the introduction of derivatives, and in the l990s, the embarrassing rescue of Long Term Capital Management, foreign speculation and the collapse of Asian economies. The book concludes with Morris's reflections on the need for vigorous regulation of the financial markets and explains how the regulators must 'sweep-up the broken glass' after each crisis. He is optimistic that eventually the financial system will respond again to a new round of demographic, economic and technological change. As early investors accrue huge profits on new innovations, imitators follow pushing the system to its limits, then another crisis follows and the late comers take the losses.