The Ascent of Money

Niall Ferguson by David Levine

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World’ is a 2008 book by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s, which was adapted into a series of documentary feature for public television in the US and UK. It examines the long history of money, credit, and banking. From Shylock’s pound of flesh to the loan sharks of Glasgow, from the ‘promises to pay’ on Babylonian clay tablets to the Medici banking system.

Professor Ferguson explains the origins of credit and debt and why credit networks are indispensable to any civilization. He also investigates human bondage. Studying the question: How did finance become the realm of the masters of the universe? Through the rise of the bond market in Renaissance Italy. With the advent of bonds, war finance was transformed and spread to north-west Europe and across the Atlantic. It was the bond market that made the Rothschilds the richest and most powerful family of the 19th century. The book also explores why stock markets produce bubbles and busts.

Ferguson goes back to the origins of the joint stock company in Amsterdam and Paris. He draws telling parallels between the current stock market crash and the 18th century Mississippi Bubble of Scottish financier John Law and the 2001 Enron bankruptcy. He shows why humans have a herd instinct when it comes to investment, and why no one can accurately predict when the bulls might stampede.

Life is a risky business – which is why people take out insurance. But faced with an unexpected disaster, the state has to step in. Ferguson travels to post-Katrina New Orleans to ask why the free market can’t provide some of the adequate protection against catastrophe. His quest for an answer takes him to the origins of modern insurance in the early 19th century and to the birth of the welfare state in post-war Japan. The housing market’s collapse is also examined: It sounded so simple, give state-owned assets to the people. After all, what better foundation for a property-owning democracy than a campaign of privatization encompassing housing?

An economic theory says that markets can’t function without mortgages, because it’s only by borrowing against their assets that entrepreneurs can get their businesses off the ground. But what if mortgages are bundled together and sold off to the highest bidder? Lastly, Ferguson investigates the globalization of the Western economy and the uncertain balance between the important component countries of China and the US. In examining the last time globalization took hold – before World War One, he finds a notable reversal, namely that today money is pouring into the English-speaking economies from the developing world, rather than out.

One Comment to “The Ascent of Money”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s