Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

Rate this book
Niall Ferguson follows the money to tell the human story behind the evolution of finance, from its origins in ancient Mesopotamia to the latest upheavals on what he calls Planet Finance. 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. 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? This is history for the present. Ferguson travels to post-Katrina New Orleans to ask why the free market can’t provide adequate protection against catastrophe. He delves into the origins of the subprime mortgage crisis.

442 pages, Hardcover

First published November 13, 2007

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Niall Ferguson

83 books2,715 followers
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and current senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and founder and managing director of advisory firm Greenmantle LLC.

The author of 15 books, Ferguson is writing a life of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which--Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist--was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. Other titles include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die and High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg.

Ferguson's six-part PBS television series, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World," based on his best-seller, won an International Emmy for best documentary in 2009. Civilization was also made into a documentary series. Ferguson is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service as well as other honors. His most recent book is The Square and the Tower: Networks on Power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018).

(Source: Amazon)

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
7,835 (28%)
4 stars
11,056 (40%)
3 stars
6,270 (23%)
2 stars
1,466 (5%)
1 star
463 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,742 reviews
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews6,926 followers
September 9, 2017
Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages - even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations - banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy - performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.


According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 3 books54 followers
June 2, 2009
Yay for empire!

Another book from the vaguely centrist right, you know them, those economists and Greek translators and philosophers from the University of Chicago who assisted Pinochet in his fascist coup, won Nobel Prizes, misconstrued Plato to fit their world-view (I'm looking at you, Leo Strauss), and finally, today, when they are primarily involved in teaching a new generation to do the same things.

Well, Ferguson perhaps isn't so vehemently rabid about his political beliefs, and he doesn't teach in Chicago. But he is their counterpart: the British free-trader. Only he has something the Chicago boys don't: that very old and very British urge to colonize those who have defaulted on their debts. We who are not so verse in financial lingo tend to call this imperialism, a much more effective imperialism because so incredibly beneficial to those who have the most to gain.

Ferguson does a very good job of making economic theory as understandable as possible (which means that I understood and could possibly recall about 30% of those unyielding financial terms and theories). It's an excellent day when intelligent historians do not stoop to "our" level to be understood: Ferguson makes his point without relying on that pitfall of historical writing: making history uncomplicated.

And yet, oh, and yet. The closest thing to socially adept you're going to get here is the gold standard, which by any standard (including its own) is a dangerous illusion of stability. And don't even think for a minute that Ferguson will even mention the naughty word "labor" as applied to a working force. He does his best to put a pretty, imperial British mask over his rough, working-class Scottish face, but for all his talk of bubbles and busts and liquidity and illiquidity and real estate and S & L, you have to wonder: is it possible that something so vacuous as a number on a screen can define us, politically, culturally, and spiritually? It's kind of a scary predicament, and _The Ascent of Money_ not only sets out to prove that this is true, it also aspires to show that "Planet Finance" is an evolutionary process, almost as evolutionary as evolution itself, with a little more ideology thrown in. The last chapter "Chimerica" is one reason to read the book (or at least that chapter) as it portrays a clear-sighted analysis of the US-China situation, which is becoming more intricate and dangerous each day.

It is a minor but slightly important book, more about finance than financial history. Then again, maybe finance is financial history.

I think it's time for some Naomi Klein.

Profile Image for Warwick.
809 reviews14.4k followers
June 19, 2019
Financial institutions are not evil, that's Niall Ferguson's main point. For some, this is already a hard sell. I am not, as it were, temperamentally against the idea, but I sure seem to read a lot of books by people who are, so I was curious to follow his arguments. And I have to admit that for the most part, he makes his case convincingly, arguing that ‘poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers exploiting the poor’ but rather ‘has much more to do with the lack of financial institutions, with the absence of banks, not their presence’.

I guess this makes sense when I think of some countries I know. To flesh out his case, Ferguson goes back to the Middle Ages and, chapter by chapter, takes you through the major milestones in the history of finance: the invention of banking in Renaissance Italy, the development of bonds, the emergence of a stock market, the growth of a concept of ‘real estate’. His point is that a ‘world without money would be worse, much worse, than our present world’.

I have – to my detriment as a journalist and as a solvent member of society – an embarrassingly non-stick mind when it comes to economic matters. Terms like ‘arbitrage’ or ‘fractional reserve’ slide off it, leaving no trace. Among the stories Ferguson tells is the one about the Scotsman John Law, who initiated one of the classic economic bubbles when – having unwisely been put in charge of the economy of Regency France – he frenziedly sold off stock in his new Mississippi Company. Now this is something I have read about in detail on at least three other occasions over the years: Colin Jones wrote about it in his history of 18th century France, The Great Nation; then I read Arthur Herman's account of it in The Scottish Enlightenment; and more recently Ned Sublette covered it from the American perspective in The World That Made New Orleans. I've now read the story for a fourth time. Yet if I sat down to explain my understanding of it, I would probably struggle to fill a smallish postcard.

For someone as weak in this area as I am, this book did much better than most in giving me a proper deep context for understanding the world of finance. For that I'm grateful. How much I accept his thesis I'm not sure; as far as it goes, it's obviously right, but there are things not addressed in here that complicate the picture, which subsequent events have made only too clear.

Because unfortunately for Ferguson, the most salient figure in the book is the one found on the inside cover: ‘Published 2008’. In a cruel twist, the book went to press just as the entire system it was trying to describe came crashing down around everyone's ears. A few panicked footnotes (‘…at time of writing – May 2008’) attest to Ferguson's attempt to stay abreast of events, but it was an impossible job from where he was – namely, in time to explain the ballooning subprime disaster, but before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the multi-trillion-dollar bailouts.

With this kind of hindsight, any defence of the international finance system, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot help but leave a bad taste in the mouth. Which is not to say that Ferguson would have approved of what happened, far from it – his tone is, on such matters, generally censorious and he writes explicitly against bailouts as a concept (‘Every shock to the financial system must result in casualties’). His broad principles of financial progress may be just about still standing, but it's starkly apparent that the notion of regulatory oversight – which he never mentions – is far more pressing than a 2008 perspective could allow.

Ferguson, turning the old saw on its head, suggests that ‘money is the root of most progress’, and this may be so if you take the long view. The long view is what this book does best. Attempts to turn this into moral arguments about the present, though, only go to show the wisdom of that fine print which warns that a writer's sense of timing – like the markets – can go down as well as up.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
September 17, 2009
Life has a habit of proving me wrong. Recently I wrote a review of The Drunkard's Walk How Randomness Rules Our Lives and said something like you generally get a better understanding of a subject if you can see the historical path that has been followed in building the subject in the first place. This book is all historical path, but it has left me without a clearer understanding of what I had hoped to learn from it.

And this is a pity, as there are many things about money I would like a deeper understanding of. These are things that people ALWAYS take for granted in writing these sorts of books – and they are also things that I have NEVER understood. Exactly the same thing happens with astronomy. A lot of the universe seems to be made up of matter that has formed essentially into planes – our solar system is a good case in point with all of the planets going around the sun in what looks a lot like a disk. I know that Kant was one of the people who worked out why this should be the case, but other than knowing who worked it out, no one seems to ever explain why that ought to be the case. For years I had much the same problem with water freezing – in most liquids moving from a liquid to a solid decreases the volume, water does the exact opposite. It was only when someone explained the crystal structure of ice that this started to make sense. I do particularly like things to make sense.

My question about money has to do with the Stock Market. This is my understanding. Capitalism’s great invention was the joint stock company. This was a way of raising lots of money from lots of different sources so that a company could be formed that would do what needed to be done (build a railroad, put down a gas pipeline, whatever else). The motto of capitalism could just as easily be ‘spread the risk – spread the joy’. The point being that even if you had enough money on your own to build a railway it would probably not be a good idea for you to put all of your money into that one thing just in case things went terribly, terribly wrong. By getting lots of people to put smaller amounts of money into a broader range of activities the chance of all of them turning sour at the same time is greatly reduced. What you loose in total control, you more than make up for in avoiding sleepless nights.

So, let’s say I want to start a company to build a better mousetrap, following on from the remarkable success of both Agatha Christie’s and Hamlet’s earlier versions. I need $10,000 and so I issue 100 shares worth $100 each. People are crazy enough to buy these shares and now I have my money and start researching mice and killing them. All is good with the world. I come up with said mousetrap, one that kills mice by quoting all of the major soliloquies of Hamlet at them until they decide the answer to the question is ‘not to be’. I start making lots of money. The value of my company goes up to $20,000 – so each of the shares has doubled in price. I think I understand all of this so far. But now there is a market in my shares and people, not content with receiving dividends from the profits I’m making hand over fist, want to sell my shares and take their profit in one go. Okay, good. Lots of people decide to sell my shares at pretty much the same time – perhaps there has been a bit of a slide in confidence somewhere more generally and even though the ‘boring vermin to death’ mousetrap is selling well and people have even started talking about how nobly designed it is and in apprehension, how like a god and so on … the general downturn in the market means people are selling stock left, right and centre (which just also happens to include mine) and no one seems to be interested in buying stock. So, the price of my shares plummets.

The question I always have is – well, so what? Surely the only time the company ought to be worried about the price of its shares is when they are being issued – as, it seems to me, this is the only time when they are going to bring in any money to the company. What happens to the price following this would seem rather academic from the company’s perspective. I issued the stock to build a company, I have built that company, that company is going well – why should the stock price bother me at all?

Look, I know I’ve got this arse about face in some way – and that is fine – but my point is that I would have expected to come away from this book understanding how this sort of thing works – and I didn’t. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read lots of books on pretty much this same theme and subject and I’ve never had this bit explained to me in a way I can understand. It is very possible that I’m just a dolt and have completely missed what is so utterly transparent to everyone else they don’t even see the point in explaining it (and as I’ve said already, it wouldn’t be the first time). All the same, it would be nice if someone, somewhere could point me to a book that explains this stuff in a way that even I can understand.

The bits of this book that were particularly good were mostly towards the end when he started discussing behavioural economics. I’m becoming a big fan of this subject, but I do seriously wonder what it will end up adding to economics theory per se. The fact we are ‘predictably irrational’ (Predictably Irrational The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions)is interesting enough in itself, but what will be much more interesting will be when this subject stops being about curiosities (as discussed in books like Freakonomics Rev Ed A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) and when a more substantial and unified body of theory (preferably able to make predictions) grows up around these curious and fascinating facts.

The part of this book where he brushes aside Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by talking about how little of a percentage of US total trade comes from Panama (and therefore it simply wouldn’t make sense for the US to kill their president) is so silly as to beggar belief. Surely the percentage here is not of total of US trade, but the total of Panama's trade that is dedicated to the US. Surely too the canal should figure somewhere in these calculations – it did very much so in the hit man book. And surely before dropping this argument entirely someone might want to talk about things without a direct 'economic' value to the US, say the value of having yet another UN vote always in US favour by a compliant Panama.

This writer is very much of the Chicago School – never even mentions that even in its heyday (and even in the US) there were saltwater economists who rejected the ultra-liberalism of the freshwater economists. But economics is a political and ideological ‘science’ – which is another reason we should hope that adding some cutting edge psychology into the mix might help. His mostly uncritical review of the Chilean ‘economic miracle’ gives the ‘all is sunshine’ version of Naomi Klein’s much darker version in The Shock Doctrine The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

There is a television program that goes with this – I ought to watch it, I guess, but am probably unlikely to.
Profile Image for John Farebrother.
114 reviews24 followers
January 30, 2018
This is a very informative, and convincing book, about the history, and the need for money. I say that despite the fact that I disagree with the author's conviction that capitalism is one of humanity's greatest achievements, and that the price of progress is more than worth it, no matter who loses out. Also despite the fact that I have heard that the author is quite an arrogant individual. But this book is a thorough and comprehensive account of the various milestones that have taken place in the history of money. Above all it is a celebration of the achievements that have been made possible by money's capacity to leverage and create value - a value that some would say is illusory and false. But there is no doubt that the modern world as we know it would not exist without the lubricant and stimulant growth hormone money, for better or for worse.
Profile Image for Marc Weidenbaum.
Author 10 books36 followers
August 19, 2013
The book is titled The Ascent of Money, but it's not about the ascent of money. It's about the path of money, with the assumption that from the origin of the book's historical perspective, money has been the bedrock of civilization. There's no ascendancy, because there is nothing for it to compete with, in the author's telling. What the book really is is a straight history of the above-board financial markets, and to that extent it's a useful and largely enjoyable read, covering the move from barter to coin, and from coin to virtual funds, and from virtual funds to algorithmic trading. The author does a wonderful job of jumping across vast time periods to draw comparisons (showing how even if technology changes, human nature does not). He does a terrible job of telling jokes, which comes across as a sort of nervous habit (mostly alliteration, puns, and pop-culture references), one that someone close to him should point out to him.

The absence of under-the-counter financial markets and their influence on, their substantial part of, the global economy seems like a significant blind spot. There are occasional asides to the Mafia, narco states, and the like, and of course when Ponzi schemes come to light they are acknowledged. But that's it. As such, it's sort of like this: if The Ascent of Money were a study of a city, it would only take stock (so to speak) of the goings on within buildings and institutions, and not of street life. In other words, it's not a full picture. It's like a Chamber of Commerce picture. (One other seeming blind spot: if I'm not mistaken, the author seems to have a disinclination toward companies that are not publicly traded.)

Also: I cannot recall reading a non-fiction book recently with less of a thesis. There is no overarching theme, no consciously enacted perspective, just the steady march of economic history proceeding like a fleshed-out timeline. I'd say most fiction I read has more of a thesis, more of a sense of perspective on the world, than this book does.

To be clear, there is a concluding section in which the correlations between biological evolution and monetary-system change is compared. But in effect what has happened is that after dropping occasional references to such a metaphor throughout the book, he then tries to tie it all together. In other words, the equation to produce this book was: write a history of (largely western) economics at a (largely) macro level, and then add a final chapter proposing a model, supported only by parenthetical references in the majority of the book. A comparison is not a thesis, especially when the comparison feels added on. Furthermore, the evolution metaphor is seriously sloppy. For a widely traveled professor at Harvard, he has created a loose-at-best metaphor with a floating subject that changes according to the need of his rhetoric, on a moment by moment, sentence by sentence basis: Has money ascended, like man is said to have? Has the nature of business? Has the market? If, as the author states, complex technological innovations haven't actually supplanted earlier modes like barter and loan sharks, then how can the comparison to mankind be made? Are we humans surrounded by our own competing ancestors? And if in fact this is about an ecological comparison, and not a one-on-one to mankind, then why not just say so? Because comparisons to man allow for the idea of the free market having a rational hive-mind sentience? Because The Ascent of Man sounds like a better logline than The Ecology of Money? It's altogether unclear. If after this much effort a book's thesis cannot be plainly stated, then it does not have one. What it has is a paper wrapper.

And as a side note, I may be mistaken, but the book seems to clarify when an economist is left-leaning but not when right-leaning. And the fact that George Soros and several other figures in finance are Jewish is pointed out, but no other religion is listed with any particular frequency when other major figures are mentioned.

One final thing: There is an anecdote about the film Mary Poppins early in the book that I highly recommend reading. I can't do it justice, but in brief: the author was invited to speak at a business event, and since the tone of his talk was somewhat negative about the economic short term and midterm, several of the attendees (all successful business-people) complained afterword, essentially taking issue with the presence of a non-businessperson, especially one deemed not enough of an optimistic booster. One of these complaints stated that they should have ditched him and just shown the movie Mary Poppins. The author then takes the opportunity to point out the extent to which Mary Poppins' plot rests on the instability of British banks.
Profile Image for Chris.
379 reviews26 followers
December 3, 2008
Ferguson is known as an economic historian yet his last few books were almost purely historical, with only brief passages on the economic aspects of historical events. Here, Ferguson returns to telling about, well, not so much economics as the evolution of finance. First money, then banks, then bonds, then equities, derivatives, insurance, and finally the causes of the recent credit crunch are explained and developed in simple and clear prose. Unlike 'War of the World' - a mammoth retelling of the horror of the 20th century (which I felt had an impersonal and rushed air, as though Ferguson had relied too heavily on his massive, globe-spanning team of researches from a host of universities), 'Ascent of Money' is Ferguson really dealing with what comes naturally to him, as an expert in both the early modern bond markets, quantitative finance, the inner workings of the House of Rothschild (as he should, he wrote the book(s) on them), the hubris behind Long Term Capital Management, and every other complicated aspect of the markets. Also, the endnotes are what really put Ferguson in a class above the rest of the clutter in the 'NEW IN NONFICTION' shelves, because Ferguson really is a world class academic. The footnotes reveal the real depth and breath of Ferguson's learning and research - everything from the Financial Times, personal correspondences, interviews from Democracy Now!, and every major current events book of the last generation, including the new George Soros book which I bought WITH this book - Let's get that straight: Ferguson had read and referenced a book which is so new it was on the same 'NEW IN NONFICTION' shelf near his.
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
508 reviews426 followers
October 14, 2015

Contemplating the title of this book, my first thought was that it was by a person of the political left, maybe not the Pope, but an anti-capitalist and moralizer on the all-around evil of the financial system.

"No," said the person who recommended it to me; "He's center right."

So, then I saw the title as deriving from the bad-boy mentality of the author, thumbing his nose at such views. The author has his own intended reference--to The Ascent of Man, a TV series by Jacob Bronowski that impacted him in his youth. But the first two chapter titles, "Dreams of Avarice" and "Of Human Bondage," did nothing to change my impression.

Also, this book is based on a television series, which is, in fact, what I originally set out to watch. And in the series, the author is strutting around, looking very much like a "master of the universe" wannabe (or, to use the old Salomon Brothers' self-descriptor that he quotes, a "Big Swinging Dick").

His presentation notwithstanding, Ferguson isn't an economist or financier but a historian and professor. Yet the teaching wasn't getting across. I must have been looking around online; that's when I discovered there is a book.

From that first chapter, about the origin of finance, I learned that the root of "credit" is in "credo," the Latin for "I believe," and that when Shylock calls Antonio "a good man," he means, not his virtue, but his creditworthiness. And that--the conjoining of goodness with creditworthiness--echoed subsequently in the institutionalized racism of red-lining in the 1940s, whereby African-Americans were deemed "uncreditworthy" (in Chapter Six), and, again, near the end of the book, where the author uses a dollar amount to express what a person would have been "worth," had he pursued a certain investment strategy.

The author also touchs on the legal fictions required to avoid running afoul of usury laws against the earning of interest--laws that remained in effect in England until 1833. Examples are the repaying a loan with the inclusion of a percentage of the gains, or the purchase of streams of annuity (if I remember correctly, the latter being one of Voltaire's methods.) ...And there's the Medici's rise via finance from small-time hoodlums to popes, royalty, and arts patrons. "Bank" is from "banci," Italian for "benches," on which the earliest bankers ("banchieri") sat behind their tables. ...And how precious metals do not define what money is. In fact, the importing of mountains of silver into Europe by the conquistadors changed what had been thought to be "the" worth of products: so much silver poured into the economy that there was inflation.

And he talked somewhere about how loans "create" money. You put your money in a bank. So you have that much money. And the bank lends it to someone else. Now that person has that amount of money, too. Presto--more capital! Or, more properly speaking, the depositor and the borrower can each take that money and build or make something. Although the borrower's position is balanced by debt, still, each has the use of the money.

In the afterword, the author defines money as "the crystallized relationship between debtor and creditor"--but isn't that only because he's focusing on finance? It seems to me it would be more basic to say it's the crystallized relationship between buyer and seller. (My husband is gloomily shaking his head while saying he doesn't know enough to comment, so I've probably gotten onto shaky ground.)

My favorite chapters were Chapter Four, "The Return of Risk," and Five, "Safe as Houses." In the former, I wondered why, at the beginning, he was making statements I expect to hear from the political left, such as that financial difficulties are more likely at present due to climate change and "American foreign policy blunders," and quoting Naomi Klein. He talked about risk, using as an illustrative case the uninsurability of parts of New Orleans post-Katrina. He also looked at the problem of inflation in the '70s in a one-sided way, it seemed, positing Milton Friedman as the savior and "socialism" as the enemy. At the end of that chapter, he said the answer to the problem of risk lies in futures, options, and hedge funds, albeit an answer available only to those with money. And that was his answer to his rhetorical leftist references to risk at the beginning of the chapter.

For the rest, there are--houses. Chapter Five begins with the story of Monopoly (the game): invented by a radical who wanted to preach against the uses of money, but turned into a glorification of same by a later developer. The game became so ubiquitous that it was used in WWII to smuggle real cash to spies behind enemy lines.

Ferguson makes clear that, although the owning of homes benefits capitalist democracies, the expression "safe as houses" applies to the lender, not the buyer. The lender can reclaim the property should the borrower default, since you can't pick up your house and abscond with it. What the purchaser must have is an income. Then, and only then, is he home safe.

And, back to the '40s and before, that was when, in the words of a friend of mine, FDR "saved capitalism." In 1932, in the midst of the Depression, Ford Company goons fired on 5000 demonstrating unemployed workers, killing five, and before long 60,000 workers were singing "The Internationale" at the funeral. The New Deal became answer to such unrest--as did the creation of affordable long-term mortgages and federal deposit insurance.

The chapter ends with safe as--not houses--but "housewives," and the merits of microfinance. Women stay home, use, not squander, the money, and pay it back. (Elsewhere I've read of the similar merits of educating women.) But even in microfinance exorbitant interest rates have arisen, supposedly as the only way to make money on a multiplicity of tiny loans.

Although "Safe as Houses" presents the risk to capitalism, the author never puts together in a coherent way that classic liberalism, in the sense of absolutely free markets, sans any sort of planning or mitigation of the travails of "the masses," would lead to just the sort of uprising he describes as having happened back during the Great Depression.

The last chapter, "Chimerica," deals with the Great Recession of 2007 and the relationship between the U.S. and China. They save, they lend us lots of money; awash in all that money, "subprime" loans were made to people with no jobs, no assets, and no prospects--for which he fingers "W." (Take that, you conservative accusers!) Apparently no one knew that defaults on subprime mortgages would shake the international economy and affect people half a world away.

The author talks about the era of globalization that preceded WWI, characterized by imperialism and gunboat diplomacy, of which one low point must be the forced creation of an opium market in China for the merchandise produced in India under British auspices. In light of that, our present status as the drug market for the "developing world" doesn't seem so wrong. Turn and turn about is only fair.

Ferguson quotes some of the financial elite of the Victorian era--that prior era of globalization--as saying war would be a disaster, but most of them were saying it couldn't happen; the world was just too interconnected. Of course, he's comparing that to our own globalized times. Then, Britain was paired with Germany as the U.S. is with China now. (But his picture neglects to touch on the pervasive belief that Europe needed war to cleanse or purify itself, that I've picked up from other sources.)

Markets have short memories. Workers in the financial sphere have careers of around 25 years. English-speaking westerners feel so secure. They are lacking in imagination, and they are complacent. The author closes with a review of economic thinkers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan) and Daniel Kahneman. He's looking here at the hard-wired irrationality that calls into question all economic forecasting--without the benefit of hindsight, that is.

Niall Ferguson's TV series as it was shown in England is available on YouTube. There was also a four-session NPR showing but we were lucky to end up with the six sessions that matched up with the six chapters. The book goes into more detail--sometimes confusing, as when terms are defined on the show but not in the book. The book tends to contain jargon not readily understandable to the uninitiated--sometimes unintentional but sometimes, just maybe, intended to mystify. For example he says countries with financial intermediation do better than those with other systems such as feudalism or central planning. The latter is a code expression for communism. Is the former a code for capitalism?

The book suffers from the severing of finance and commerce, as they are intertwined and interrelated, and as commerce, as well as finance, started off being in a bad light.

This book purports to be, per the subtitle, a "financial history of the world," but, if so, only in the sense of the special events and highlights that illustrate the rise, in historical succession, of banks, government bonds, markets for securities, the stock market, insurance and pensions, derivatives, and, finally, the political encouragement of home ownership.

It is a history in the sense of a 1926 book I had from my mother and uncle as a child in the '50s--"The First Days of Man"--that had chapters with such titles as "How Mother Nature Made the Earth Ready for Man," "The Fish that Got Stuck in the Mud," and "The Ape that Walked Like a Man." One can fit some more pieces into the puzzle, but won't find a comprehensive picture that provides massive new insights.

Taking Niall Ferguson at his own word, here's his view of money:

(F)ar from being 'a monster that must be put back in its place,' as the German president recently complained, financial markets are like the mirror of mankind, revealing every hour of ever working day the way we value ourselves and the resources of the world around us.

It is not the fault of the market if it reflects our blemishes as clearly as our beauty.

The Ascent of Money was published in 2008, a year into the "Great Recession."

Postscript: Are there no other paintings of the exchange of money? This book uses on its cover the very same one that is on the cover of The Mind and the Market.

Update for October 13: I noticed this article reprinted in my local paper that seems to reflect the author's concept of "goodness" as "creditworthiness:" http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Oliv...
Profile Image for Ci.
960 reviews6 followers
September 22, 2016
"The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance".
Cicero - 55 BC

So what have we learned in 2 Millennia? Evidently nothing?

Ferguson argued that financial markets are like the mirror of mankind, revealing the works of how we function in the world. Why can we learn anything from history? He told us -- in his most brilliant segment of the book, the "afterwords" -- that there are three reasons:

1. financilal market is about future, and future lies in the realm of uncertainty, as opposed to calculable risk (risk is measurable, but uncertainty is not).

2. because we are human, our behavioral bias generates inherent instability in the system.

3. financial markets are analogous to a Darwinian system where institutional mutation and natural selection processes play important parts. "Things just happen" (the "drift" of random mutation) and "Things are made to happen" (the "flow" of the natural section) generate unpredictable dynamism in the system.

Overall, this is an excellent book with good contents and good writing style.
Profile Image for Juan-Pablo.
62 reviews14 followers
August 8, 2011
I expected this book to give a good insight (as opposed to a comprehensive history due to its length) on how the monetary and financial systems developed throughout history. It is instead a series of historical anecdotes thematically combined on each chapter. Some of them are really informative (the ascent of the Rothschilds), others are downright superficial and inaccurate.

The political and economic doctrines of the author are obvious in the reading of the book, as pointed out by other reviews. There are some instances that, however, exhibit lazy research and/or bias. The description of the economic policies during Pinochet's dictatorship and Friedman's Chicago Boys is an example. Any historian knows by now that the "miracle" was not such, and the long term economic prosperity in Chile really started by the less rigid doctrines of the Minister of Finance Hernán Büchi in the mid/late 1980' and by the democratic governments post-dictatorship. The rigid doctrinal policies of the Chicago Boys only generated one of the worst Chilean economic crisis in 1982.

This book is and easy read and has some interesting facts and stories, but lacks the depth and insight of a good historical book.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,517 reviews10.8k followers
September 25, 2010
4.0 stars. I am a big fan of Niall Ferguson and this book certainly added to my appreciation for both his skill as a writer and his knowledge of history, especially financial history. After spending the early portion of the book on the history and development of currency, this book becomes a brief look at the origins and development of the major financial institutions (banks, commodity exchanges, hedge funds, insurance companies) and categories of assets (bonds, stocks, real property, options and derivatives). For each of these various categories, Ferguson provides the historical background that led to their development as well as the benefits and problems that came along with each.

A well researched, well written survey of financial history and an interesting read.
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 9 books454 followers
July 20, 2018
This is a book very much set in the anxieties of 2008. As you read this book, you may find yourself going back ten years when it seemed likely the financial world might end.

Each chapter takes on a different issue: money, the bond market, stocks, housing, and political economy. Each chapter is concise and well-written. For much of the book, however, I felt that the narrative was a bit aimless.

There is no ideology behind the book that I can see...the book is not Marxist, nor Libertarian, nor raw-raw free market capitalism. That is the book's strength, but also makes the book a little random at times.

Historical examples are picked a bit at random...obviously we don't see the entire history of the subjects at hand. Instead, we see snapshot, as if in a scrapbook.

The story the book tells, to the extent there is one, is one of innovation, adaption, death, and innovation. Just when we think we've mastered the economic world, that's when we're the most likely to face extinction.

The last chapter does a very good job of pulling the various threads together. The economic story is one that is intensely ecological...things in the economy survive because of small advantages, luck, and other vagaries of nature. I think this is a smart way to write about financial history...even if it does lend to a bit of incoherence.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written, we often write history with the retrospective bias, making sense out of the nonsense of historical stuff. Thus, it is not always a bad thing to find a history book that manages to keep the nonsense of history intact.
Profile Image for George.
60 reviews41 followers
December 9, 2017
"The Ascent of Money" by Niall Ferguson explores the development of financial systems - primarily European systems from about the year 1400 onward and the United States system since the Civil War. There is major focus on the US economy in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

This book is just OK - not bad but not that good either.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Narrated by: Simon Prebble
Length: 11 hours and 27 minutes 
Unabridged Audiobook
Release Date: 2008-12-12
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Profile Image for két con.
99 reviews121 followers
September 28, 2015
nhờ có quyển này mà nắm được khái niệm cơ bản về trái phiếu, cổ phiếu, bảo hiểm, quỹ phòng hộ, bất động sản, Trung Quốc, Soros.
Profile Image for Stefan Mitev.
142 reviews668 followers
March 15, 2022
"Възходът на парите" проследява финансовата история на света - от Средновековието до кризата през 2008 г. Нийл Фъргюсън анализира ключови събития, като създаването на първите банки в италиански градове държави, формирането на стокови пазари, въвеждането на военни облигации (war bonds), отпускането на средства срещу ипотека и изграждането на социалната държава с пенсии и осигуровки. Авторът твърди, че изходът от редица исторически конфликти (Американската гражданска война, Наполеоновите войни) се решава от икономическите системи на противниците.

Непознаването на финансовата история води до болезнени грешки. Инвестиционни фондове, създадени от нобелови лауреати по икономика, фалират и губят всички пари на своите клиенти. Обяснението според Нийл Фъргюсън е свързано с надценяване на предвидимостта на настоящето и подценяване на изненадите в бъдещето. Хората не са икономически рационални (Homo economicus), а точно обратното - същества, движени от страсти и емоции. Концепцията за риск е обяснена в детайли с множество примери.

"Възходът на парите" ще донесе нови знания на хора като мен, които не са специалисти по темата, но искат да научат как е формирана съвременната икономика. Оценка 4/5
5 reviews1 follower
December 20, 2013
The "Ascent of Money" had a subtle right-wing/conservative bent to the point that as the events became more recent, I found more and more questionable "facts" and right-wing "talking points". For example, as a follower of Paul Krugman's economics blog, I know at least one thing Ferguson says about him is a lie that has been perpetuated by certain Republicans. And his analysis of the recent (2007) mortgage/housing crisis is factually incorrect although is a common version reported by conservative news outlets.

The problem with using disputed facts and explanations (regardless of whether they are ultimately true or not) is that it calls into question the rest of the historical facts and analysis in the book. If the parts I personally have researched and have knowledge of are questionable, I am finding I cannot trust the rest of the book.

This book is a fun read but given the problem with some of the facts and analysis in the 20th and 21st century parts, I don't think I'd recommend this book to others.
Profile Image for Praveen.
225 reviews64 followers
May 18, 2014
Money does not make the world go round, but it does make staggering quantities of people, goods and services go around the world.

Money ....Money ...Money....

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, examines long history of money, credit, and banking. Since this book is all about history don’t think it’s dry and unreadable... it very readable, interesting and with substance. The most interesting thing about this book which I felt is the blend of William Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice to explain the rise of loan sharks and development of loan term or "usance".

Being a Trade Finance professional I never thought of development of loan term/tenor which we use on daily basis. Most of the finance which we do covers the shipment period i.e., from the time of loading to discharge....not even once i have thought of the tenor which is used in William Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice a typical Trade Finance Loan.

Great book.
55 reviews10 followers
February 5, 2017
Xuất sắc ! Cuốn sách này thực sự 'khai sáng ' cho mình rất nhiều khái niệm tài chính vốn rất phổ biến trong thực tế nhưng mình lại hoàn toàn mù mờ. Cách diễn đạt cũng hết sức lôi cuốn, lớp lang, xúc tích, lần lượt giải thích cho người đọc sự ra đời và bản chất của rất nhiều khái niệm tài chính liên quan đến quá trình tiến hoá của đồng tiền như : tiền kim loại, tiền giấy, ngân hàng, trái phiếu, cổ phiếu, bất động sản, các quỹ cứu hộ, nhà nước phúc lợi,... Không hề khô khan và khó hiểu (ít nhất là theo tưởng tượng lúc đầu của mình ) Cuốn sách cũng nhắc đến nhiều nhân vật có tầm ảnh hưởng lớn đến nền tài chính thế giới và những sự kiện mang tính bước ngoặt ít nhiều gắn liền với lịch sử của thế giới loài người nói chung, rất thú vị

Vì là một người hầu như ko biết gì về nền tài chính thế giới nên mình nói chung ko thể tranh luận với các luận điểm tác giả nêu ra chỉ thấy chúng mang lại rất nhiều kiến thức cho mình cũng như cách phân tích của tác giả rất thấu đáo và khơi gợi mình mong muốn tìm hiểu thêm về tài chính và vì lý do đó mà mình cho nó 5 sao :) Một quyển sách rất đáng đọc.
Profile Image for Lois Bujold.
Author 154 books37.5k followers
August 1, 2013
I came by this book via finding the PBS 4-part series up on pbs.org, which I have recently discovered as a goldmine of missed NOVA and Nature shows, free to watch online. I watched the TV shows first, and picked up the book from the library to see if it would add depth.


if you want to check them out.

I am quite weak on financial history, so this book made an excellent beginning remedial course. I don't think one should stop here, however. But I did find Ferguson's account of the evolution of the sometimes-bewildering financial institutions that shape our lives to give me a helpful framework. (I find the bond market particularly mysterious, although even that paled when I hit the parts about hedge funds.) The early history was the most graspable -- the past 30 years, less so. I found his summation in the Afterword of the recent work done in psychology to be the most biting critique of a lot of academic economic thinking.

Written in a lucid and entertaining style for the most part, with the heaviest sledding being in the most recent history. (This book was written just at the verge of the most recent market meltdown/recession of the mid-late Oughties.) Since, as a self-employed person, I manage my own retirement savings, it really behooves me to find out more, I suspect. But I must say, the more lurid early history was the best part from the point of view of a writer. John Law, good grief! I couldn't make him up. One can pretty much take the TV show as "the good parts version", if one only has time for a single pass.

Another book of which I was reminded while reading this was Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay, also highly recommended; among other things, it has an account of the Dutch tulip mania, one of the world's first classic market bubbles.


It might be worth a revisit, as I read it so long ago that it is getting pretty blurry in my memory. (I'll bet Project Gutenberg has it... and it looks like I can get it free for my Kindle, hah!)

Ta, L.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,436 reviews96 followers
December 19, 2011
I was listening to this audiobook on a CD player, and my husband said, "Is a man with a plummy English accent explaining the plot of Mary Poppins to you?" (Yes. You may not remember the part where the little boy wants tuppence to feed the pigeons and inadvertently triggers a bank run.)

Harvard history professor explains the origins of not only coins, paper money, and electronic money, but also stocks, bonds, and insurance. (Bonds and insurance are way more important than I had realized.) Very helpful for a nonexpert like me; probably too basic for someone with academic training.

Here are some interesting facts I learned:

• Incan society did not include the concept of money. The Inca thought silver was beautiful and knew how to make it into things, but they couldn’t figure out why the Spaniards wanted mountains of it.

• Spain extracted so much silver from the Americas that they inadvertently lowered the price of silver substantially. Which goes to show you that money is worth only what someone will trade you for it.

• The Dutch invented the stock market, but it took a Scotsman (gambler/wife-stealer/duelist/convicted murderer John Law) and a Frenchman (the heavily indebted Louis XV) to invent the stock bubble.

• Possibly the best name ever: Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 6th Viscount Cobham and 2nd Duke of Buckingham. He was a British nobleman who owned 67,000 acres in three countries but spent so freely that his son ended up wresting control of the estate and selling everything in his dad’s house that wasn’t nailed down (and some things that were). Lesson: “It’s not owning property that gives you security; it just gives your creditors security. Real security comes from having a steady income.”

• There used to be two Harrods department stores in the world: one in London and one in Buenos Aires.

• Inflation in Argentina was so bad that one day the government literally ran out of money.

Profile Image for Tao.
77 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2009
This is a very readable and enjoyable financial history for a layman like me. Like most of the members of the general public, generally I have no interest in financial history, considering it complicated, mundane, boring and dry. However, the recently financial meltdown piqued my interest on this topic.

This book described the development of modern finance and banking system, staring from Renaissance Italy, the Medici family, the rising of the Rothschild family after the Waterloo, all the way down to the current crisis triggered by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. It is especially interesting to read the accounts of S&L crisis of 1980s and 1990s, appreciating its relevance to the current crisis.

It is especially interesting to notice the similarities of all the bubbles in history, from the famous Dutch Tulip Mania, British South Sea bubble, French Mississippi Bubble, Great Depression, S&L crisis, and finally, the current financial meltdown. It seems bubbles can never be prevented. Interestingly, a recently Atlantic Monthly article penned by the (in)famous Henry Blodget, "Why Wall Street Always Blows It", contemplated on this very topic and concluded that bubbles are unpreventable.

Enjoyed this book tremendously.
Profile Image for Edward.
414 reviews388 followers
April 10, 2017
The Ascent of Money provides a good broad outline of the history of the modern global financial system, but does not go deep enough either on the historical origins of financial institutions or the nature of the financial systems themselves. For example the idea of fractional reserve is important and central to the power of modern economics, but it's not given much attention here. Ferguson chooses certain key historical events around which to build his story. These are usually informative and interesting, but the book is definitely slanted towards being entertaining rather than comprehensive. Also, some conclusions are to be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism - although the book is not overly biased, it does exclude any notion of things like "labour" within an economic framework, opting instead to focus on concepts like "efficiency". All that being said, I did learn a fair bit from this book and it did increase my understanding and appreciation of the history of our financial system.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,601 reviews414 followers
November 29, 2017
-Bastante claro y con una voluntad divulgativa, aunque peraltada, que se cumple casi hasta el final.-

Género. Ensayo.

Lo que nos cuenta. El libro El triunfo del dinero (publicación original: The Ascent of Money. A Financial History of the World, 2007), con el subtítulo Cómo las finanzas mueven el mundo, más preciso y explicativo que el propio título, retrata la evolución de las finanzas, o más bien de los principales instrumentos financieros y de los propios mercados, a lo largo de la historia y enlazada con los eventos, periodos y fenómenos de nuestra historia que, con frecuencia, se afectan entre ellos.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Петър Стойков.
Author 3 books255 followers
August 6, 2021
Отдавна съм забелязал, че за много хора (включително и повечето завършили икономика, ако съдя по нивото на състуденти и колеги) финансите и икономиката са нещо свръхестествено – неразбираемо и сложно, пълно с чужди думички, формули, графики. За по-конспиративно настроените пък, финансите и икономиката са пъклен заговор за експлоатацията на човек от човека и понеже са неестествено състояние на обществото, трябва да бъдат премахнати/ограничени…

Понеже за разлика от гореописаните хора, не приемам света мистично или идеологически, а по-скоро причинно-следствено, за да разбера нещо, за да си го обясня, винаги ми е било най-удобно да погледна корените му, да видя от къде идва, как се развива, за да стигне до сегашното си състояние. Защото принципите са същите, само сложността се увеличава с времето – а е много по-лесно да разбереш първо принципите, на които са основани елементарните действия в миналото (за всичко става дума – човешки и семейни отношения, хранене, икономика и т.н.), които постепенно се усложняват днес.

Книгата на Найл Фюргюсън, подходящо наречена Възходът на парите: финансова история на света прави точно това в сферата на финансите – описва зараждането на икономическата активност още в древните общества, първите пари, как и защо са се появили. Преминава през античния свят и средновековието, обяснявайки първите финансови инструменти (акции, менителници) и как древните са ги прилагали, възхода на банкерството и на италианската фамилия Медичи – първите международни банкери (самотни конници, разнасящи ковчежета с пари насам натам :) ) и обменители на валути. И, разбира се, стига до съвременния свят, с неизмеримо сложните финансови институции и операции.

Всъщност, в един определен смисъл, Възходът на парите: финансова история на света е много подобна на Богатството на народите на Адам Смит – защото обяснява по прост и разбираем начин развитието на финансовата система – от мидени черупки през медни монети, до краткосрочни брейди облигации. Тя дава разбиране за финансите като за естествен и нормален резултат от взаимоотношенията между хората през вековете, които искат да търгуват и обменят стоки и блага.
Profile Image for Zora.
70 reviews3 followers
December 9, 2018
A fascinating, well-written history of the financial markets covering the Medicis and Rothschilds, the Dutch East India Company, establishment of the banking system, the stock market, insurance and risk, property and property ownership and the 2008 financial crisis. The topic is somewhat dry, but relevant and interesting nonetheless.
Profile Image for Sravya.
27 reviews2 followers
December 24, 2018
As the author says, most current traders and execs may not have a living memory of a crisis. Which is why we need to study financial history. To that effect, the author explains all the crises in simple language. It makes for an interesting and engaging read.
89 reviews1 follower
December 21, 2020
Ferguson may be a good historian, I wouldn't know, but he certainly is not a good (and unbiased) commentator on current and recent affairs. The main problem with this book is that it really is not a comprehensive history of money/finance, but more of a random sampling of some historical vignettes chosen to build towards Ferguson's ide0logical beliefs. In other words, this doesn't come across as a dispassionate, historical examination but as a slanted manifesto of the author's beliefs in a crude disguise. The greatest disappointment is the unartfulness of the disguise. Ferguson is at his best when he truly is dealing with historical personalities (e.g. I did learn more about about the Rothchilds and Medicis), but he does this mostly at the beginning of the book, and then simply dispenses with real history. His chapter on housing and the well-fare state (Safe as Houses) is probably the worst, as it is so laden with his far-right, almost libertarian perspective that the reader can't be sure what really is factual. Other weaknesses of the book include: (1) unclear explanations of financial concepts (crucial to this kind of book), (2) lack of clear themes and links between different vignettes, examples, (3) horrendous afterword in which he tries to cram everything in (e.g. evolutionary perspective on finance, behavioral economics, etc.). Overall, I am sure there must me much better books for either getting an overview of the history of money/finance or understanding current finance; this one fails at both.
Profile Image for Josh Friedlander.
707 reviews99 followers
June 17, 2015
Most people - or at least me (I?) - know this guy as a purveyor of some outrageous opinions (Keynes was wrong, because he was gay, or something?) and partisan talking points, and his questionable approach to fact-checking was recently highlighted by Jonathan Chait at New York magazine. Still, with one exception (an arch criticism of the excesses of the welfare state, and their putative role in the stagflation of the '70s), this is a surprisingly balanced, entertaining and illuminating history of the development of the modern monetary and financial system (the title is a nod to Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, a formative influence on the author). Ferguson shows how banking and credit came about, how sovereign bond markets affected the rise of nations (and their recalcitrant, spendthrift kings), and the rise of speculative bubbles, including the 2008 mortgage crisis. Even those unsympathetic to the classically liberal tendencies of the author would find in this book much to recommend it.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,742 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.