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The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  1,073 ratings  ·  93 reviews
When the first fissures became visible to the naked eye in August 2007, suddenly the most powerful men in the world were three men who were never elected to public office. They were the leaders of the world’s three most important central banks: Ben Bernanke of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Mervyn King of the Bank of England, and Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank ...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published April 4th 2013 by Penguin Press HC, The
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4.07  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,073 ratings  ·  93 reviews

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Aaron Arnold
Apr 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is the history of the Great Recession as told through the eyes of its central bankers, which is a particular angle I hadn't seen before. Inevitably, it will disappoint in certain ways: in much the same way that The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam's magisterial account of the political factors that drove the decisions to escalate the Vietnam War, was not intended to be a military strategy guide, this work of journalism is not intended to be an economic policy primer. For that, you n ...more
A useful and surprisingly readable overview of how U.S., European and British central banking authorities responded to the credit crisis of 2007-2008 and its aftermath. The Alchemists assumes some basic knowledge of how central banking works but it is still quite accessible for the non-specialist. There are inevitable gaps in the narrative and I've listed some additional resources in the comments section for those longing to delve deeper.

The Alchemists is framed as the personal story of three ra
Arun Divakar
Nov 15, 2017 rated it liked it
The subject of economics is one which I have steered clear from in my readings. The reason behind this was that I could not find it to be one that called out to my curiosity . Reflecting on it slightly more made me understand that this could be an aftermath of my education too wherein unless you have a passion for them subjects like mathematics, economics and physics can become rather dry and soporific. Picking up this book was a conscious decision whereby I wanted to shed some of these notions ...more
Jason Hebert
May 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
This book was a fascinating look at our recent recession and the fiscal remedies employed. Anyone with an interest in understanding the world's banking systems, and the challenges they currently face, should read this book. Considering the current importance of those systems, that means I would recommend it to everyone.
Adithya Jain
Apr 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics
In this brilliant book on Central Banking, Neil Irwin makes the impact these relatively silent institutions have had on our lives. Virtually controlling the economy and money supply, a solid central bank has existed at the center of every empire that has ruled the modern world.

Though it is a book that deals with fundamentals of economics, the language makes it easily accessible to any layman. The author delves deeply into the history of Central Banking and reminds us of the impact that this has
Buddy read with Hana, Sep 2014

No portraits of Palmstrch or descriptions of his personal manner have survived. But it seems fair to assume that he was a smooth talker. But it seems fair to assume that he was a smooth talker. He must have conveyed seriousness, probity, and wisdom and been able to make people trust him without a second of doubt. This description of the world's first central banker bears an uncanny resemblance to Moist Von Lipwig, Terry Pratchett's central banker in Making Money.

Apr 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
By Dominic Elliott

The most lasting inheritance of the 2008 financial crisis may be a change in the purpose of central banks. From the 1980s until 2007, most believed that monetary authorities should primarily use a policy interest rate to combat inflation. Interventions in the markets or in the financial system were outside the remit, or so the orthodox view went. Neil Irwin’s “The Alchemists” shows how that thinking has been turned on its head.

Central banks now have vast power. The European Cen
Jan 16, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in monetary policy or international economics. As far as books on the financial crisis go, there are probably better ones out there, but this book’s strength is in bringing to life the human drama behind the staid world of central banking. Written by a financial journalist who witnessed the crises first-hand, it is full of colorful behind-the-scenes anecdotes and revelations about the personalities of the central bankers. For example, quantitativ ...more
Apr 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal book reviewing the 2008 Banking crises from a new perspective - the international one. I have read a lot about this topic and was pleased to get a new approach. Irwin dives into how the history of Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB and how they are structured and how that influences their actions. It also explains how they are able to co-ordinate their influence.
Great book for economists.
Matt Nolan
May 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Good book. However, it appears to underplay the "currency risk" associated with the Euro - a key factor that led to the crisis heading on another downward leg from mid-2012. An update version with a couple of additional chapters given more recent events is likely to appear at somepoint, and that will be worth 5-stars.
Dec 29, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Journalist's account of the "history" of central banking, but most of it is about the last 6 years. Entertainingly written for what it is, but despite it's title there are no secret revelations to anyone who follows the financial press. Adamed's "The Lords of Finance" is better for understanding central banking, and Blinder's "After the Music Stops" is better for the 2007-13 financial crisis.
Kalpak Shah
Oct 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book to understand the origins and inner workings of central banks. Must read if you have interest in global finance, macroeconomics and politics.
Oct 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bibliocase
“Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”, proclaimed the immortal Bard of Avon in his gripping play, King Henry the Fourth. What William Shalespeare left unsaid however, was that such unease is exacerbated manifold especially when one happens to ascend to the position of a Central Banker. Hurl into the already formidable conundrum a financial recession that has the potential not only to slam the brakes on world prosperity but also pull the very rugs of stability from underneath the globally int ...more
Mar 07, 2018 rated it liked it
When the bookstore didn't have the book I wanted, I chose this and I think it was a mistake. The book is well-written by an excellent journalist, but I had just finished Other People's Money by John Kay, which is a far more rigorous analysis of the finacialization of the global economy by an economics professor. The Alchemists is a lot like so many other books out there on this same topic. Other People's Money digs much deeper into the causes of our economy today and doesn't necessarily agree wi ...more
May 07, 2018 rated it liked it
When I started reading this book, I knew nothing real about the Fed other than it had "bailed out Wall Street". Why did it do that? Did it really hurt the American people with it's interventions in 2008 and beyond? Why did the US crisis affect Europe? Why was everyone talking about a crisis in the Eurozone?

I can't say at the completion of listening to this audiobook that I can reasonably explain a coherent multi-sentence answer to any of the above questions. Maybe if I'd listened more closely, t
Tulga G
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book is about three central bankers who are heads of Bank of England, European central bank and Federal Reserve.
Their main problem was the global crisis which erupted in 2007 in the U.S and spread to Europe, repeatedly threatened China's booming economy. They all had different assumptions, challenges and approaches to the problem because their situation was all different. This book explained the policies they maintained, decisions they made very precisely, and also their secret meetings, the
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Having taken much much longer to read this book than anticipated, I think I've established that I strongly prefer to consume economic news in articles. Alas, most retrospectives tend toward the superficial and excessively narrative. This book manages to stage the events of the 2008 financial crisis with the lights of an epic drama without using too heavy a filter, but it still has too many words. And for all those words, it's remarkably light on the Asian market reaction, though I appreciate the ...more
Michael Baranowski
May 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
This account of how the Fed's Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King of the Bank of England, and Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank was highly praised, and I can see why - Irwin is a great writer and it's a compelling story. But as someone who's never been a big fan of personality-based analysis of politics, it left me frustrated. I don't much care about the tick-tock, behind-the-scenes sort of thing and would prefer a more thoughtful and less personality-driven story that focuses on policy. Bu ...more
Tim McLynn
Dec 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
A touch more technical than my last couple of reads, Neil Irwin's The Alchemists tells the story of our most recent global financial crisis through accounts from behind-the-scenes of central banks as head bankers Bernanke (US), Trichet (EU) and King (UK) were forced to make unprecedented decision after unprecedented decision to keep the economy from falling further into recession. Irwin’s anachronic telling adds to the complexity involved in keeping track of each central bank’s different policie ...more
Thomas Chau
Jul 19, 2018 rated it liked it
The book is well researched and the material well put together and makes the subject easy to absorb. But it lacks true insight into the shadow players of our global financial system. The book makes heroes of the central banking chairmen and directs our attention to the root of the problem. I suppose that was the aim of the book.
Mar 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: tammy-vs-paul
Great deal of fun with more than a few phenomenal quotes. Irwin does a great job displaying the amount of work put in by the central banking community during the housing bubble and crash. I highly enjoyed it.
Matthew Worley
Oct 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Good account of the practical side of Central banking. Characters are made more real life, and the moves made by the Fed, ECB, and BoE are given perspective.

Ran a bit long and could have used some further editing of the material. Had good tone.
Dec 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Decidedly apologetic and pro-Central Bankist, this is nevertheless a really informative book about central banking in general and King, Bernanke, and Trichet's efforts to avoid financial catastrophe for England, the United States, and the European Union during the Great Recession.
Max Lapin
Jan 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Insightful look into the history and tools of the central banks. A decent read for macroeconomics experts and total amateurs both.
May 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've ever read. Fantastic exhaustive telling of the 2008 financial crisis with hard to get behind the scenes details. A must read for those who enjoy economics.
Grindy Stone
First half is a pretty good read, with a primer on central banking followed by the crises of the housing bubble and Greek debt. After that, getting through this book becomes a slog.
Dec 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
(I am a PhD student in economics from Germany, but macroeconomics/monetary policy is not my expertise. I am adding this personal information to better allow the reader of this review to judge whether my comments will apply to them.)

The book is split into four parts and is essentially an exposition of the decisions taking by central banks and other makers of economic policy in the US and Europe, focusing mostly on Trichet (ECB), Bernanke (Fed) and King(BoE). The first part deals with the history
Debbie Kinsey
This book follows central bankers at the Federal Reserve in America, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank, in particular Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King and Claude Trichet, respectively. It details their decision-making, actions (or lack thereof in the case of the UK), and processes as they try to get the world’s financial system under control. It begins with a short history of the banking system – how it came about in its current form and, particularly, the decisions and mistakes made d ...more
Neil Irwins' "The Alchemists" is an excellent read on the world of central banking and macro-economic policy. He accounts the rise of central banking, starting in Sweden in the 17th century, and documents some of the major economic crises throughout history, including the Great Depression and the Japanese crash in the 90's to name a few.

However, the meat and bones of the book is the economic recession of 2008, and the three major players leading the Federal Reserve Bank in the USA, the Bank of E
May 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Ben Bernanke, Jean-Claude Trichet and Mervyn King, leaders of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, are the "Alchemists": The Central Bankers who attempted to moderate the global financial crisis of 2008.
This book sketches the earliest Central Bankers: Johan Palmstruch, who created prosperity and then panic in 1660s Stockholm when he introduced paper money and started to print a lot of it, Rudolf von Havenstein, who ran the German Reichsbank after World Wa
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The Alchemists, by Neil Irwin 1 8 Mar 03, 2014 08:20PM  
  • Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy
  • After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
  • Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt
  • The Bankers' New Clothes: Whats Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It
  • China Airborne
  • The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order
  • The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics
  • The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America
  • Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British economy
  • In FED We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic
  • Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility
  • Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939
  • The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era
  • Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself
  • The Great Divergence
  • The Dollar Trap: How the U.S. Dollar Tightened Its Grip on Global Finance
  • The Billionaire's Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund
  • Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West
“[Hyun Song Shin] most accurately portrayed the state of the global economy.
'I'd like to tell you about the Millennium Bridge in London,' he began…'The bridge was opened by the queen on a sunny day in June,' Shin continued. 'The press was there in force, and many thousands of people turned up to savor the occasion. However, within moments of the bridge's opening, it began to shake violently.' The day it opened, the Millennium Bridge was closed. The engineers were initially mystified about what had gone wrong. Of course it would be a problem if a platoon of soldiers marched in lockstep across the bridge, creating sufficiently powerful vertical vibration to produce a swaying effect. The nearby Albert Bridge, built more than a century earlier, even features a sign directing marching soldiers to break step rather than stay together when crossing. But that's not what happened at the Millennium Bridge. 'What is the probability that a thousand people walking at random will end up walking exactly in step, and remain in lockstep thereafter?' Shin asked. 'It is tempting to say, 'Close to Zero' '
But that's exactly what happened. The bridge's designers had failed to account for how people react to their environment. When the bridge moved slightly under the feet of those opening-day pedestrians, each individual naturally adjusted his or her stance for balance, just a little bit—but at the same time and in the same direction as every other individual. That created enough lateral force to turn a slight movement into a significant one. 'In other words,' said Shin, 'the wobble of the bridge feeds on itself. The wobble will continue and get stronger even though the initial shock—say, a small gust of wind—had long passed…Stress testing on the computer that looks only at storms, earthquakes, and heavy loads on the bridge would regard the events on the opening day as a 'perfect storm.' But this is a perfect storm that is guaranteed to come every day.'
In financial markets, as on the Millennium Bridge, each individual player—every bank and hedge fund and individual investor—reacts to what is happening around him or her in concert with other individuals. When the ground shifts under the world's investors, they all shift their stance. And when they all shift their stance in the same direction at the same time, it just reinforces the initial movement. Suddenly, the whole system is wobbling violently.
Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King, Jean-Claude Trichet, and the other men and women at Jackson Hole listened politely and then went to their coffee break.”
“For longer-term savings, people turned to other physical goods, even when they had no need for them. A 1923 report from Augsburg shows individual Germans buying six bicycles, seven or eight sewing machines, two motorcycles, all as means of savings. Pianos were also popular,” 0 likes
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