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As Ferguson points out so clearly in his latest book, "Ascent of Money", money and its propagation have become the chief driving forces of modern history. Like it or not, society's love affair with money has driven it to devise all kinds of ingenious means for expanding its power to produce more. This study looks at a number of fascinating scenarios where the Medicis, the Rothschilds, the Bank of England, the Paris stock exchange, the insurance industry and Wall Street have all done their bit to raise the historical significance of hard cash to a stratospheric level where it is no longer just a tangible piece of paper but is now a universal abstraction called credit. At the heart of the matter is the individual and corporate need to generate economic growth by creating monetary opportunity. Money only circulates effectively in society if people can trust its value as a medium of exchange for goods and services. If production falters, as it is presently, money can quickly devalue. Ferguson goes well beyond looking at the conventional realms of money as a basic specie to analyzing the inflated world of credit instruments such as bonds, debentures, bills of exchange, stocks, swaps, derivatives, mortgages, and credit cards. While money has expanded to include a variety of uses which have encouraged western civilization to modernize in leaps and bounds, it has come with a terrible price: failure to know when to exercise restraint and moderation in the rush to get rich quickly. It is this excessive behaviour in war, peace, and prosperity that compels many to take incredible risks with their own money and that borrowed from traditional sources like banks. Offsetting every optimistic prospect of making money is the ever-present fear that it could be just as easily lost. We have now reached a point in history where the expected and projected big growth of the past decades is slowly being replaced by a long-term forecast of lower and even negative growth due to our inability to keep ahead of the investment curve. The traditional power and lure of money may no longer be able to sustain our personal and collective drive to make and keep wealth. Ferguson is one of those big picture historians who fills his writing with lots of interesting stories to make his point. Very informative read!
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Previous works from Feguson I have read include Empire and The War of the World but it took me two years after The Ascent of Money was published to get to it. Having now experienced the greatest financial crisis since The Great Depression, I was struck by how prescient Ferguson was when he penned and published this work as the extent of the damage was unimaginable. The line, "Perhaps, too, it will be a financial crisis that signals the twilight of American global primacy." produces chills given the now known historical context.

In his foreward he explains, "As I completed my research for this book in the early months of 2008, it was already a distinct possibility that the US economy might suffer a recession. Was this because American companies had gotten worse at designing new products? Had the pace of technological innovation suddenly slackened? No. The proximate cause of the economic uncertainty of 2008 was financial: to be precise, a spasm in the credit markets caused by mounting defaults on a species of debt known euphemistically as subprime mortgages." He provides entertaining (yet scary) observations of the "ubiquity and proximity of both easy credit and easy bankruptcy" in the US.

The book is divided into money and banking, bond and stock markets, insurance, and property. It is highly readable and would be a great substitute to the dry tomes that are often used in secondary and post-secondary economics and finance classes (the accompanying DVD would make another great teaching aid). Ferguson makes a strong argument for his central thesis: "the ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man" and that we humans are largely woefully ignorant of finance. And he does this through entertaining tales of our economic history, by bringing clarity to the complex, and by sharing a laugh with us in terms of our economic foibles that are tied more to our humanity than to our financial acumen.

Ferguson call financial markets "the mirror of mankind", and as such, the entire financial system is so complex that he describes it as "non-linear, even chaotic." The book is valuable because it brings a bit of order to that chaos or at least an opportunity for greater understanding.
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on December 17, 2008
The latest book by Harvard professor and popular commentator Niall Ferguson is a historical look at the rise of finance. Ever wonder how the stock market came to be? Exactly how and why did the evolution of credit lead to the rise of civilizations? Could all the world's conflicts be explained by economics? These are the historical questions Ferguson poses and attempts to answer in "The Ascent of Money."

Ferguson's primary purpose for the book is by using economic history to help explain the complexities of modern financial institutions. Why, might you ask is this important? Because the average person knows little to nothing about such simple financial facts such as the interest rate charged by their credit card. Never before, in this globalized, highly coupled world that we live in today, has financial knowledge and a fundamental understanding of financial institutions been more important than it is today. Everyone is affected by world markets, interest rates, and inflation one way or another.

Some reviewers have critiqued the book for its lack of historical breadth, and to some extent I would agree. However, the book is already 350+ pages, and more historical examples would dilute Ferguson's arguments. As ambitious as it is to try to explain such a complicated subject, Ferguson is mostly on the mark. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of finance.
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on October 13, 2012
There are many complimentary things one can say about this remarkable book, and they have all been said ---- collectively and even individually ---- by other reviewer: its sheer readability, its humour, the clarity of the writing, the richness of its amazing anecdotes, the care with which the major statements are verified by references and footnotes, the comprehensive account of the subject that is structured into sections that flow logically from one to the next, and above all the mastery of his material exhibited by the author. Those who have withheld a star or more have most often done so because of accusations of bias, alleging that Ferguson is soft on capitalism and is too willing to make excuses for its excesses. Nothing can be further from the truth. He does justify the invention of money, and documents the myriad problems its existence has solved and the great advantages it has brought to trade and commerce and the growth of civilization in our time. He also shows how indispensible and irreplaceable it is, and surely he is right, as no economic system ----- not any form of socialism or communism ----- has been able to do without it. Thus, money in itself, is politically neutral, a tool that can be used for good or evil. The same can be said of almost all great inventions that have initially advanced the human race. Think of the poisonous effects of Television, the Internet, and drugs created to ease human suffering for a mere start.
The root of all evil is Man, not Money. This is made amply clear by Ferguson with case histories of fraudulent behavior bringing enormous rewards and little in the way of punishment. The overwhelming response to this book is a disgust and hatred for Western Capitalism and the Free Market economy on which it is based. It presents a solid rationale for the various Occupy Movements that its excesses have provoked, although in themselves they are going nowhere fast. There are obvious solutions to our present predicament that emerge from this book: Nationalization of Banks, Insurance and all “too-big-to fail” organizations is an obvious beginning. Swinging taxes on “speculation” and a recognition that “investment” merits the same rewards as labour, but not more ( therefore equal tax rates), are the next step, and call for clear demarcation between short-term and long-term Capital Gains. Just as essential is abolition of the “Free Market”. A Market, yes, but what we have now is anything but “Free”, except that it is free for criminals to exploit and manipulate and a wonderful opportunity to ruin the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of simple individuals, with rewards in the high millions and punishments that rarely go beyond knuckle-wrapping. A corollary surely has to be the abolition of any distinction between white-collar and blue-collar crime: emotional damage can frequently be an unkinder cut than physical damage. All US political power-brokers and central bankers have abolished strict control of the most fundamental institution over which they should be exercising responsibility in favour of “self-regulation”. So far as I am aware, the Sicilian Mafia is the only self-regulating institution that operates efficiently in fulfilling its stated objectives.
Fergusson hints at these but does not advocate them directly. In this he shows wisdom, since in the hands of most governments, solutions have tended to cause more harm than problems, and enormous care and patience will have to be invested in their implementation. Looking at our world today, it is clear that the same greed, stupidity, rapaciousness and lack of controls are alive and well, and the lessons of Economic History that this book provides are unknown or ignored. It should be compulsory reading for every schoolchild after Shakespeare and the Bible.
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on March 2, 2009
This is an exciting book of adventure and international historical intrigue that kept me reading into the night! I'm serious... and I'm an artist, not a business woman. Ferguson did an excellent job of intertwining our current economic crisis with the financial histories he chose to include in his book. It made his subject more relevant, and unfortunately, more perilous.

As a non-business person I learned so much about financial history and contemporary economics, all in an entertaining format. "The Ascent of Money" is must-reading for these times.
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In providing the history of finance, Niall Ferguson opens a whole new dimension of understanding of the evolution of society. It soon becomes clear that without knowledge of the financial underpinnings of the events that have shaped our civilization, it cannot be properly understood.

The Ascent of Money is a finely researched work which eloquently describes in depth, this facet of our history. After reading it, everyday events suddenly take on new significance, in the light of the economic education thus gained.

If you feel at sea when considering the current financial situation, this book will provide you with an excellent compass!
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on March 3, 2013
Basically, the book covers everything you should know about the history of money if you want to understand how we got here . A very serious topic but the writing style is anything but dry. The story of the rise and fall of Venice is fascinating. It is an enjoyable read unlike most finance texts.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon February 12, 2012
Ferguson skims over the centuries, and attempts to package together a financial history of the world. Some of the stories will be familiar to the reader, others will be new. In particular, I thought Ferguson did quite well, with his description of the Mississippi Bubble.

Financial history is often an area of study, that is over looked. Yet there is so much, that can be applied to our current financial crisis. Ferguson tries to weave together some economic lessons, that can be applied to today`s economic situation. I felt the conclusion, which is an overview of the current economic slump, could have gone a little deeper.

In terms of the books rating. Someone that is new to the study of economic history, will find this book fascinating. Another reader with some background in economic history, will find some areas of repetition. Ferguson also maintains a somewhat capitalistic and libertarian slant, therefore progressives and socialists, will be in constant disagreement with Ferguson`s conclusions.
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on February 12, 2012
The title of the book infers a positive connotation to the development of money. I think the majority of people would agree that we are better off than those of Mesopotamia. This ascent, however, follows a saw-tooth pattern of gains and losses through time. Fergusson does a good job following these vicissitudes. I discovered the function of money studying economics in university, a unit of exchange. When a country has problems maintaining confidence in their currency, any benefits that the evolution of money has developed moves backward because the belief diminishes.

There is a lot of discussion on the purpose of this book: is it a history of money, does it fulfill an agenda of the author, does it describe the financial difficulties of our current economic condition, does it do all of these? I will look at how this book fulfills all of these.

Firstly, Ferguson provides us with a history of money by taking us from tablets used five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia to the earliest known coins from 600 BC found by archaeologists in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, to the Medicis of Italy, the Rothschilds, John Law , the American civil war, the World Wars, and to the housing bubble of the latest decade. These different periods illustrate developments and the failures in the history of loans, banks, bonds, real estate, derivatives, Chimerica, and the financial community's efforts to attach biological terms to the financial world.

Secondly, some have criticized Ferguson for only providing history that supports his political leanings. An argument could be made that this is a history of money and not politics although the two are highly intertwined and Ferguson does include politics in this history. I would think Ferguson tried to minimize the role of politics so criticisms of excluding Pinochet's human cost could be defended on these grounds.

Thirdly, the history of money is filled with instances of the animal spirit or irrational exuberance of human thinking which explains the most recent recession. From Medici to the Rothschilds, John Law to Ken Lay, over confidence soon gets the better of us and therefore does explain the cause of today's recession.

So I think Fergusson did a good job overall in combining micro details that provide a tactile connection to significant developments in the history of money and still achieve a macro understanding of money. Looking at the ledgers of the Medicis or the tablets that were used for crops keeps you on your toes while explaining the developments of the first lenders.

My favorite parts of this book include the Dutch United East India company's power in world trade, German monetary policy after WW I, the role of bonds in the US civil war, the Chilean experiment, and the modern day stock market, 12 fold increase over 20 years.

My least favorite part is the explanation of today's problems being the result of printing money. From my reading of the situation, it was the rating agencies who enabled the selling of the CDO's and mortgage company's ability to escape liability in their lending practices. Not the printing of money.

I'm looking forward to reading Ferguson's next book 'Civilization'.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 3, 2015
This thoroughly entertaining and informative ride through the history of money is well worth the time. And you probably won't even notice the time fly by as you read this. Never was a worthwhile read so free of tedium. This one volume overview of how money took over the world, both by "evolution" and "intelligent design", clearly spells out the sometimes hidden role and usually significant role finance has played in world history. Why did the French have a revolution while the English reformed without one? Money holds part of the answer. And I repeat, this volume is far from boring.
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