A financial history of the world

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Intelligent Business
A financial history of the world
Oct 9th 2008
From The Economist print edition

One way to make sense of the present financial chaos
is to look back at the past
THE typical career of a Wall Street banker lasts about a quarter of a century, enough
to span just one big financial crisis. As Niall Ferguson explains in his new book, "The
Ascent of Money", which will be published next month, today's senior financiers
would have started out in 1983, fully ten years after oil and gold prices first began
the surge that had ruined the previous generation of money men. That, he
concludes, is a "powerful justification for the study of financial history."

Mr Ferguson is right. The world needs a book that puts today's crisis into context. It
is too late now to warn investors about expensive houses and financiers about cheap
credit. But perhaps the past can help make sense of the wreckage of banks, brokers
and hedge funds that litters the markets. Looking back may help suggest what to do
next. And when the crisis is over and it is time for the great reckoning, the lessons of
history should inform the arguments about what must change.

This rushed, uneven book, by a British-born Harvard University professor who made
his name a decade ago with a history of the Rothschild banking dynasty, will
contribute less than expected to that debate. It has strengths, including a tidy
account of the run-up in housing markets and of the symbiotic rivalry between
America and China. But in the earlier chapters--the history, oddly enough, where
you would expect Mr Ferguson's ambitions for his subject to quicken his
judgments--the words rarely come to life, either as a source of ideas or as narrative.

Perhaps the book was bound to be flawed, given the pace with which today's crisis
has torn through the markets. As the debacle has unfolded, from a housing crisis, to
a credit bust, a bank run and what now looks ominously like a global recession, each
episode has posed different questions. Finishing his manuscript in May this year, Mr
Ferguson must have been dizzy with the unravelling of certainties. And yet, he is at
his strongest in his reading of the news. His story of what is happening today shows
prescience, even if it is necessarily incomplete.




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It may be that Mr Ferguson was too distracted by the present to pay enough
attention to the past. Claiming to be "A Financial History of the World", the book
dutifully dabbles in societies, such as the Inca, who did not see gold and silver as
money, and in the pre-Christian Mesopotamian clay tablets that served as credit
notes for commodities. He traces the transformation of banchieri, named for the
benches where money was changed, into the families that dominated the political
and cultural life of Renaissance Italy and from there into modern bankers. He
explains how the bond market had its origins in the state's need for money to
finance war. He describes how manias have repeatedly engulfed greedy investors
over the centuries--concentrating on John Law, whose schemes ruined 18th-century
France. And he rehearses the story of financial risk from its origins in Enlightenment
Scotland.

Yet the reader is left wondering quite who the book is aimed at. The finance
specialist will not find enough here to begin to compete with the work of Charles
Kindleberger, an economic historian. And the reader who wants to know how
finance is interwoven with general history would do better to turn to Jeffry Frieden's
excellent 2006 work, "Global Capitalism".

Mr Ferguson may seem to be speaking to a general audience, given that he has taken
his title from "The Ascent of Man", Jacob Bronowksi's book and television series of a
quarter-century ago which analysed the contribution of science to civilisation. Yet
these readers will be baffled by passages that breezily toss around ideas like
"sterilisation"--the issue of bonds by a government to mop up the inflation-inducing
money it prints to buy foreign currency. And they may be put off by Mr Ferguson's
attempt to be jolly. After two and half pages on the mathematics of bond yields, for
example, comes this quip: "So how did this `Mr Bond' become so much more
powerful than the Mr Bond created by Ian Fleming? Why, indeed, do both kinds of
bond have a licence to kill?"

Of far greater interest is Mr Ferguson's general theory, which does not emerge until
the end of the book. He thinks that finance evolves through natural selection.
Although the professor cautions against the sort of Darwinism that sees evolution as
progress, he believes that new sorts of finance are constantly coming into being as
the environment changes. The sequence of creation, selection and destruction is
what has generated many of the financial techniques that modern economies
depend on.




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This leads Mr Ferguson to make two timely points. One is to remember that
evolution depends on extinction as well as creation. You have to allow ill-adapted
techniques to fail if you are going to get something new. As the world rushes around
rescuing every bank in sight, it is a reminder that the guarantor-state will later have
to administer painful medicine.

The other is to observe the wonder of what financial evolution has created. Just now
it is only natural to think of the "roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, bubbles and
busts, manias and panics, shocks and crashes." But Mr Ferguson sees something else
too: "From ancient Mesopotamia to present-day China...the ascent of money has
been one of the driving forces behind human progress: a complex process of
innovation, intermediation and integration that has been as vital as the advance of
science or the spread of law in mankind's escape from the drudgery of subsistence
agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap." Amid this financial bust, cleave to
that.




A financial history of the world: Exercises
General understanding
A      Read the article quickly and answer the questions.

1. What is the main purpose of this article?
   a To give a brief history of the financial world.
   b To argue that we should study history in order to understand the current financial
      crisis.
   c To review a new book about financial history.
2. What is the title of the book?
   a The Ascent of Money
   b A Financial History of the World
   c Global Capitalism
3. Does the author of the article like the book?
   a The author thinks the book helps to explain the current crisis.
   b The author dislikes the book but thinks many people will find it useful.
   c The author thinks the book is disappointing.




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       Copyright  Pearson Education Ltd 2008. Publishing as Pearson Longman. All rights reserved.
 Intelligent Business

B      Read the article more carefully and tick the true statements below. Justify your
answers with reference to the article.

1.    The typical career of a Wall Street Bankers is about 25 years.
2.    There is usually a big financial crisis every 25 years.
3.    "The Ascent of Money" is a new book by Niall Ferguson.
4.    It will be published next month.
5.    Niall Ferguson thinks that today's Wall Street bankers started to work in 1983.
6.    Oil and gold prices began to increase rapidly in 1983.
7.    These increases led to a financial crisis.
8.    Neill Ferguson believes that all bankers should study financial history.
9.    The author of this article does not agree.
10.   The author of the article thinks the world needs to understand the current crisis in its
      historical context.
11.   The author thinks that studying the past can help us to understand the present.
12.   The author thinks that history should help us to plan for the future.
13.   Niall Ferguson was born in the USA.
14.   He worked as a professor at Harvard University.
15.   His next book will be about the history of the Rothschild family.
16.   The author thinks the first chapters of the book are rather boring.
17.   The book describes the early history of money, credit and banking.
18.   The Inca used gold and silver as money.
19.   In Mesopotamia clay tablets were used as letters of credit.
20.   Banks got their name from the `banchieri', or benches where money changers used to
      sit.
21.   Governments raised money for wars by selling government bonds.
22.   The author of this review thinks the book would be useful for finance specialists.
23.   In "The Ascent of Man", Jacob Bronowski showed how science had advanced human
      civilisation.
24.   The author thinks the last part of the book is most interesting.
25.   Niall Ferguson believes that financial systems are constantly improving.
26.   Niall Ferguson thinks that bad financial systems must be allowed to fail if we are to
      create better financial systems.




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          Copyright  Pearson Education Ltd 2008. Publishing as Pearson Longman. All rights reserved.
 Intelligent Business

Vocabulary
C Choose from the words in brackets to complete these sentences from the text. Try not
to refer back to the text.

   1. It is too late to warn _____ about expensive houses and ______ about cheap credit.
      [financiers | bankers | investors | brokers]

   2. But in the earlier chapters -- the _____, oddly enough, where you would expect Mr
      Ferguson's ______ for his subject to quicken his ______ -- the words rarely come to
      life, either as a source of _____ or as a _____.
      [story| history| narrative| ambitions| opinions,| judgments| ideas]

   3. As the ______ has unfolded, from housing _____, to a credit ______, a bank _____
      and what looks ominously like a global _____, each episode has posed different
      questions.
      [recession | crisis | bust | crunch | run | debacle ]

   4. He thinks that finance _____ through natural ______.
      [grows | develops | change | evolves | choice | chance | selection ]

   5. One is to remember that _____ depends on ______ as well as ______.
      [extinction | creation | selection | destruction | evolution]




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       Copyright  Pearson Education Ltd 2008. Publishing as Pearson Longman. All rights reserved.
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