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13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown [Paperback]

Simon Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 11 2011 Vintage
In spite of its key role in creating the ruinous financial crisis of 2008, the American banking industry has grown bigger, more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. Anchored by six megabanks whose assets amount to more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, this oligarchy proved it could first hold the global economy hostage and then use its political muscle to fight off meaningful reform. 13 Bankers brilliantly charts the rise to power of the financial sector and forcefully argues that we must break up the big banks if we want to avoid future financial catastrophes.
 
Updated, with new analysis of the government’s recent attempt to reform the banking industry, this is a timely and expert account of our troubled political economy.

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Review

“An enticing vision of a Wall Street confined… a safer, saner system that has learned from its mistakes.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A provocative prescription for avoiding a repeat of the panic of 2008 that brought the world to the brink of a second Depression.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Two of the sharpest critics of the financial establishment. . . . This book puts America’s banking system on trial.”
Financial Times
 
“[13 Bankers] holds an explosive idea: Wall Street has hijacked our government. And without a total overhaul, taxpayers will endlessly foot the bill for its sins.”
Fortune
 
“A well-documented appeal to embrace once again Thomas Jefferson’s skepticism of concentrated banking power.”
The New York Times

“The best explanation yet for how the smart guys on Wall Street led us to the brink of collapse. In the process, Johnson and Kwak demystify our financial system, stripping it down to expose the ruthless power grab that lies at its center.”
—Elizabeth Warren, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; and Chair, TARP Congressional Oversight Panel
 
“Too many discussions of the Great Recession present it as a purely economic phenomenon. . . . Simon Johnson was the first to point out that this was and is a crisis of political economy. His and James Kwak’s analysis of the unholy inter-twining of Washington and Wall Street—a cross between the gilded age and a banana republic—is essential reading.”
—Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University; Professor, Harvard Business School; and author of The Ascent of Money
 
“A disturbing and painstakingly researched account of how the banks wrenched control of government and society out of our hands—and what we can do to seize it back.”
—Bill Moyers
 
“Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what comes next for the world economy. Dangerous and reckless elements of our financial sector have become too powerful and must be reined in. If this problem is not addressed there is serious trouble in all our futures.”
—Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University; and Chairman of Roubini Global Economics
 
“Beautifully written and powerful. Ties the current financial crisis to a cycle of politics as old as the Republic, and to a pathology in our politics that is as profound as any that our Republic has faced. Required reading for the President, and anyone else who cares for this Republic.”
—Lawrence Lessig, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, Harvard University
 
“Johnson and Kwak not only tell us in great detail how the crisis happened and what we must do to avoid another crisis, but they see the deeper political and cultural context that permitted carelessness and excess nearly to break the financial system and plunge us into a depression.”
—Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator
 
“A chilling tale of the dangers of concentrated economic, intellectual, and political power. Even if you do not agree with everything the authors have to say, this book makes it clear why ending ‘too big to fail’ and reforming the institutions that perpetuate it are essential for our nation’s future economic prosperity and, more fundamentally, our democratic system.”
—U.S. Senator Jim Bunning
 
“This book is remarkable in its scope and conclusions. It places changes in financial services and the sector’s regulation over the last twenty years in the context of the last two hundred, and the comparison isn’t favorable. It’s the one book the President (and the Congress) should read.”
—George David, Chairman, United Technologies Corporation
 
“A timely, informative and important book. You may not agree with all the analysis but the issues so clearly discussed are real, current and vitally important. Financial industry reform must be undertaken soon; inaction, as the authors convincingly argue, would have dangerous consequences. This book explains it all and it’s great reading.”
—Lawrence K. Fish, former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Citizens Financial Group
 
“As 13 Bankers makes lucidly and compellingly clear, the problem with Wall Street leads directly to the core problem of our democracy. American politics now feeds on money, and Wall Street is where the money is. Unless we separate money from politics, we’ll never be safe from another financial meltdown. In fact, we’ll never really be safe. Read this fine book and get to work.”
—Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley; Former U.S. Secretary of Labor; and author of Aftershock

About the Author

Simon Johnson is Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He is coauthor, with James Kwak, of The Baseline Scenario, a leading economic blog, described by Paul Krugman as “a must-read” and by Bill Moyers as “one of the most informative news sites in the blogosphere.”
 
James Kwak has had a successful business career as a consultant for McKinsey & Company and as a software entrepreneur. He is currently a student at the Yale Law School.
 
Visit the authors' blog at baselinescenario.com.


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Most helpful customer reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The desire to analyze the current economic downturn has prompted a deluge of books, most focusing on how to address present and future economic ills and some narrowly focused on individual players and institutions that played a key role in the financial collapse, while others explained the events that led us to this place. "13 Bankers" explains how we got here and more importantly comes up with ideas to prevent a recurrence in the future far more concisely than many others I've read. I could be easy to dismiss Johnson and Kwak's observations as being pessimistic, as makes a very damning indictment of the banking and financial sectors in their past and present conditions and a rather trenchant argument that if these problem are not addressed we likely face another imminent meltdown. The authors give readers a quick concise history of finance and banking in the United States, something that many Americans are woefully unaware of, that points out how banks and financial institutions came to garner so much power over the economy. While efforts have been made to regulate them to varying degrees those regulations have often proven ineffective or are too often enacted AFTER financial catastrophes, much our current situation. The authors rather persuasively argue that the "too big to fail" model and the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 were misguided, arguing that nationalization would have been the better route to go. They continue the argument that the forced mergers, such as Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, were mistakes and instead had created institutions that are now truly to big to fail. In some respects it almost sounds like a Teddy Roosevelt-era trust buster and his argument that these large institutions need to be broken up to diffuse their power certainly makes sense. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  107 reviews
257 of 270 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A radical, but necessary proposal for revamping the banking and financial systems March 30 2010
By Todd Bartholomew - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The desire to analyze the current economic downturn has prompted a deluge of books, most focusing on how to address present and future economic ills and some narrowly focused on individual players and institutions that played a key role in the financial collapse, while others explained the events that led us to this place. "13 Bankers" explains how we got here and more importantly comes up with ideas to prevent a recurrence in the future far more concisely than many others I've read. I could be easy to dismiss Johnson and Kwak's observations as being pessimistic, as makes a very damning indictment of the banking and financial sectors in their past and present conditions and a rather trenchant argument that if these problem are not addressed we likely face another imminent meltdown. The authors give readers a quick concise history of finance and banking in the United States, something that many Americans are woefully unaware of, that points out how banks and financial institutions came to garner so much power over the economy. While efforts have been made to regulate them to varying degrees those regulations have often proven ineffective or are too often enacted AFTER financial catastrophes, much our current situation. The authors rather persuasively argue that the "too big to fail" model and the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 were misguided, arguing that nationalization would have been the better route to go. They continue the argument that the forced mergers, such as Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, were mistakes and instead had created institutions that are now truly to big to fail. In some respects it almost sounds like a Teddy Roosevelt-era trust buster and his argument that these large institutions need to be broken up to diffuse their power certainly makes sense. They also point out the corrosive effect their political clout and donations carry with the political process, hindering further efforts at regulation.

Ultimately "13 Bankers is far more satisfying a read than some recent books on the subject such as The Road from Ruin: How to Revive Capitalism and Put America Back on Top, On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, and America, Welcome to the Poorhouse: What You Must Do to Protect Your Financial Future and the Reform We Need. Yet the sad truth is that while the authors make a compelling argument for change the political establishment in Washington lacks the political will to break up these excessively large institutions. It wouldn't be good for THEIR business, which is getting reelected. While there are efforts afoot in Washington at reform none are as radical a surgery as proposed here, but suffice to say when the next financial catastrophe comes, and the authors argue it IS coming, there is unlikely to be any taxpayer/voter support for ANY bailout in ANY form. If anything "13 Bankers" made me mad as hell and against any future bailout, let alone continuing the current ones in place. What makes me madder still is that the politicians in both parties will likely never consider the radical proposal put forward here. It's a shame that it will take another financial crisis to get Congress and the Executive Branch to really act responsibly.
115 of 122 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Painful History Well Told, and a Bold Prescription for the Future March 30 2010
By Great Faulkner's Ghost - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
13 Bankers takes us through he painful history of the financial crisis that brought us where we are today and that now makes it so hard to move forward. Simon and Kwak argue that absent reform, another bailout - a more costly bailout with even greater global consequences, millions of jobs lost, and a ruinous impact on our government budget - is unavoidable.

Many Americans apparently do not yet understand how much influence financial institutions have in Washington, DC. Banks used to answer to Washington and were once held accountable for their actions. That is no longer is the case. We have never had such a concentrated banking system in the United States and it's dangerous that so much of our financial future is wrapped up in the big banks.

But the book is not pessimistic. Simon and Kwak offer instances from our history when elected representatives took on concentrated financial power. Each time, most Americans initially did not grasp how the system works, and this proved a major obstacle to reform. But the political leadership was able to explain what needed to be done, and to persuade average Americans that the nature of power in and around the financial sector had become so great and so distorted that something major had to be done.

The book is not anti-finance, but it is very much against the way our biggest banks operate today. The book describes exactly what needs to be done so that what happened in 2008-09 will never be allowed to happen again. Let's hope the prescription works.
292 of 325 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful, but not groundbreaking or controversial April 13 2010
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I'm jumping in here more to vote among the opinions already expressed than to say anything new. I mostly agree with Bruce Lasker. The book is a good straightforward history of how we got to this point in American banking, but is neither deep in its analysis nor strong in its recommendations. If the reviews had been split on this issue I wouldn't have bothered, but since its 9 to 1 against Mr. Lasker, I think it's worth making it 9 to 2.

The opinion in this book is all expressed through word choice. When the authors don't like an increase in lending it is "an orgy of lending." When they do, "banks responded with capital to support growth." People they disagree with "rant," while people they like "point out" or even "prove." But there's never any analysis to back up these opinions, they're painted onto what is basically a factual history. I happen to agree with more than half of their views, but if I didn't, I wouldn't have been convinced by this book. It doesn't help that everything is based on secondary sources, from which the authors take what they like and nothing else.

On the other hand, if you want a factual history, and either agree with the authors or are willing to ignore loaded words, this is an excellent choice. It's well-written, witty, up-to-the-minute and accurate. The opinions are never intrusive, and never foolish. They feel concentrations of banking power are dangerous, which is pretty reasonable, but they ignore the problems caused by the local corruption that grew up in its place. You learn about Jefferson, Madison and Jackson's principled objection to national banking, you won't learn about politicians anxious to create local bank monopolies for their friends and associates, restraining competition in order to maximize profit and control local economies.

You'll learn how deposit insurance and limits on deposit interest reduced bank failures for 50 years, but not how it destroyed middle class savings when high inflation combined with low legal ceilings on interest; you also won't see the terrible customer service that existed until a "shadow" banking system made an end run around the regulations and offered ATM's, high-interest money market accounts, 24-hour-banking, automated deposits, Internet banking and other innovations (when I started working you got a paper paycheck every two weeks that you had to take to a physical bank on your lunch hour as they were open only 9 to 3 on weekdays and the tellers took the same lunch hour as the office workers so you didn't eat lunch on payday, no food allowed in the bank). Sneaky overcharging and predatory lending loom large in this book, with no hint of the advantage to customers when fixed commissions were smashed or companies were forced to improve accounting disclosure.

Wall Street is always the villain, local banks that lend only to their boards of directors and pals and support the local political machine, are whitewashed. The entire S&L crisis is blamed on Wall Street sharpies taking advantage of sleepy local bankers, you won't hear that virtually the entire loss was from commercial lending by oil-patch banks whose strong political connections ran through Texas, not New York. You'll read how Wall Street money flooded into Washington in campaign contributions and lobbying, you won't read about extortion from politicians introducing legislation to expropriate people's financial businesses unless they paid up. You also won't read about the constant movement of financial innovators to get away from the whole messy business of power politics, organizing off-shore, using private vehicles and leaving regulated businesses to come up with better solutions. It's always politicians trying to draw these into the regulatory framework, where they are forced to render unto Caesar, it's not financial innovators lining up to buy political backing for their ideas. Even the harm done by the gigantic financial institutions built entirely by Washington is blamed on Wall Street, not Washington.

I'm not defending Wall Street here, just pointing out there are two sides to the story. Wall Street, and more generally global financial innovation fighting entrenched local traditional practices, has done both good and bad. Mostly it does things that some people will consider good and others will consider bad. The one point of strong agreement I have with the authors is that a system of crony capitalism grew up, and led to a lot of our current problems. Personally, I would attack all crony capitalism, not just financial, as killing it in one place just tends to encourage it to spring up in another. We have crony defense contractors, medical companies, agribusinesses among many others. I grant that financial cronies are more dangerous than the others (except maybe defense contractors) but they are more alike than different. And the fundamental reform has to be political. If someone is handing out government money, it's pointless to outlaw taking it, because someone will always find a way to break the law, and then repay the giver. Stopping the handout is the point.
59 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Balanced Look at the Horrors of Wall Street April 3 2010
By C. E. Selby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Simon Johnson is ubiquitous, appearing on a wide range of shows (at least those I watch such as NPR, PBS, and HBO). He is wonderful to listen to, a guy filled with knowledge (as well he should be since he teaches at MIT). And he has a sense of humor. And he is not one with a "conspiracy theory" which apparently one "reviewer" (one-star one) claims. So when I heard about this book, I had to read it.
I grew up in the home of a banker. But Dad was a small-town bank president in what we call "community banks." And the bank still exists and is doing well in Vermont. But my dad, when he retired in the early 70s, said, "Banking isn't banking any more." I had no idea what he was talking about, mainly because I was never much interested in banking. But I have become quite interested in it now that this country has become economically handcuffed by these so-called bankers.
This is a very well written book with a very comprehensive set of notes (footnotes) at the end. In other words, anyone writing comments about these authors being conspiracy theorists is simply ignoring the content of the book. Having said this, however, I want to acknowledge that the book isn't written for people who don't have at least a little knowledge about how the world of finance works. In other words, I found myself lost in many places. But I cannot fault the writers or the writing. I simply don't have what we English teachers would call "prior knowledge," the essential tool to reading.
The authors are not bashing anyone. The book is structured so the reader is provided with some history (and it is sourced history) before being presented with what happened and how it happened. I like how objective Johnson and Kvak are. To use a phrase that I captured from a cable channel I would never watch, this is "fair and balanced."
What most interested this reader is the case the writers make for "The American Oligarchy." Indeed that is what we have with these "financial elites" that run Wall Street. They are so tightly tied into our non-functioning Congress (and to some degree a too-tied-to-Wall-Street White House and to five very-tied-to-Wall-Street on the Supreme Court).
I intend to give this book as a gift to a few people I know who really need accurate information. But do "tea baggers" read I wonder.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommendations are the inevitable conclusion April 17 2010
By John Hagens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Johnson and Kwak have written the best book I have read so far on the financial mess. Their historical introduction to the subject includes a description of Thomas Jefferson's concerns about banking. Their conclusion that we need to break up the mega-banks cycles back to Jefferson (and also Andrew Jackson). Some technical knowledge is needed to follow all of the arguments of the book, but the authors take great pains to make this material accessible to anyone who reads a daily paper and is vaguely familiar with mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, etc. One walks away from this book upset that the new administration in Washington hasn't taken bolder steps to make finance "boring" once again. I seriously hope that Senator Dodd and Representative Frank carefully read this book, pass it to their Congressional colleagues and staff members, and push hard for serious financial reform. This country cannot afford to experience another meltdown, but as the authors (and many others) point out, this last bailout of the "too big to fails" (also known as "heads they win, tails we lose") only gives the big banks more incentive to gamble even more dangerously. We've now had the tech bubble burst (minor recession) and the housing bubble burst (serious recession). What will be the next sector to blow up?
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