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Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World [Kindle Edition]

Liaquat Ahamed
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize

With penetrating insights for today, this vital history of the world economic collapse of the late 1920s offers unforgettable portraits of the four men whose personal and professional actions as heads of their respective central banks changed the course of the twentieth century

It is commonly believed that the Great Depression that began in 1929 resulted from a confluence of events beyond any one person?s or government?s control. In fact, as Liaquat Ahamed reveals, it was the decisions taken by a small number of central bankers that were the primary cause of the economic meltdown, the effects of which set the stage for World War II and reverberated for decades.

In Lords of Finance, we meet the neurotic and enigmatic Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, the xenophobic and suspicious Émile Moreau of the Banque de France, the arrogant yet brilliant Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, whose façade of energy and drive masked a deeply wounded and overburdened man. After the First World War, these central bankers attempted to reconstruct the world of international finance. Despite their differences, they were united by a common fear?that the greatest threat to capitalism was inflation? and by a common vision that the solution was to turn back the clock and return the world to the gold standard.

For a brief period in the mid-1920s they appeared to have succeeded. The world?s currencies were stabilized and capital began flowing freely across the globe. But beneath the veneer of boom-town prosperity, cracks started to appear in the financial system. The gold standard that all had believed would provide an umbrella of stability proved to be a straitjacket, and the world economy began that terrible downward spiral known as the Great Depression.

As yet another period of economic turmoil makes headlines today, the Great Depression and the year 1929 remain the benchmark for true financial mayhem. Offering a new understanding of the global nature of financial crises, Lords of Finance is a potent reminder of the enormous impact that the decisions of central bankers can have, of their fallibility, and of the terrible human consequences that can result when they are wrong.

Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Liaquat Ahamed on the Economic Climate

In December 1930, the great economist Maynard Keynes published an article in which he described the world as living in “the shadows of one of the greatest economic catastrophes in modern history.” The world was then 18 months into what would become the Great Depression. The stock market was down about 60%, profits had fallen in half and unemployed had climbed from 4% to about 10%.

If you take our present situation, 16 months into the current recession, we're about at the same place. The stock market is down 50 to 60 percent, profits are down 50 percent, unemployment is up from 4.5% to over 8%.

Over the next 18 months between January 1930 and July 1932 the bottom fell out of the world economy. It did so because the authorities applied the wrong medicine to what was a very sick economy. They let the banking system go under, they tried to cut the budget deficit by curbing government expenditure and raising taxes, they refused to assist the European banking system, and they even raised interest rates. It was no wonder the global economy crumbled.

Luckily with the benefit of those lessons, we now know what not to do. This time the authorities are applying the right medicine: they have cut interest rates to zero and are keeping them there, they have saved the banking system from collapse and they have introduced the largest stimulus package in history.

And yet I cannot help worrying that the world economy may yet spiral downwards. There are two areas in particular that keep me up at night.

The first is the U.S. banking system. Back in the fall, the authorities managed to prevent a financial meltdown. People are not pulling money out of banks anymore—in fact, they are putting money in. The problem is that as a consequence of past bad loans, the banking system has lost a good part of its capital. There is no way that the economy can recover unless the banking system is recapitalized. While there are many technical issues about the best way to do this, most experts agree that it will not be done without a massive injection of public money, possibly as much as $1 trillion from you and me, the taxpayer.

At the moment tax payers are so furious at the irresponsibility of the bankers who got us into this mess that they are in no mood to support yet more money to bail out banks. It is going to take an extraordinary act of political leadership to persuade the American public that unfortunately more money is necessary to solve this crisis.

The second area that keeps me up at night is Europe. During the real estate bubble years, the 13 countries of Eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet empire had their own bubble. They now owe a gigantic $1.3 trillion dollars, much of which they won’t be able to pay. The burden will have to fall on the tax payers of Western Europe, especially Germany and France.

In the U.S. we at least have the national cohesion and the political machinery to get New Yorkers and Midwesterners to pay for the mistakes of Californian and Floridian homeowners or to bail out a bank based in North Carolina. There is no such mechanism in Europe. It is going to require political leadership of the highest order from the leaders of Germany and France to persuade their thrifty and prudent taxpayers to bail out foolhardy Austrian banks or Hungarian homeowners.

The Great Depression was largely caused by a failure of intellectual will—the men in charge simply did not understand how the economy worked. The risk this time round is that a failure of political will leads us into an economic cataclysm.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Almost all critics praised Lords of Finance for its command of economic history and engaging, lucid prose. Ahamed, noted the New York Times, illuminates wise parallels between the misplaced confidence that spawned the global depression in the 1930s and the illusory calculations of risk that led to the current financial crisis. His compelling biographies also personalize economic history. While critics disagreed about whether lay readers will, in a century's time, care about Norman, Moreau, and Schact, the only negative words came from the Wall Street Journal, which criticized Lords of Finance for an imprecise understanding of the gold standard: "Harrumphing about the ‘gold standard,' Mr. Ahamed reminds me of the fellow who condemned ‘painting' because he had no use for Andy Warhol."
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

Product Details

  • File Size: 1719 KB
  • Print Length: 588 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 22, 2009)
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,905 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
194 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Central Banks in the First 40 years of the 20th Century February 7, 2009
First, let me say that this is an extremely well written book. I was expecting to have to plow through the usual dreadful writing that finance and economics seems to generate. To my surprise I found a book that was crisp, clear, and interesting. Fun, in fact. Second, the author covers a period and a topic that is sadly neglected in most histories - the inter-war period, and especially the financial events that played a major role in the rise of Hitler and the origins of the Second World War.

The book is primarily the story of 4 Central Banks - those of the US, England, France, and Germany, and of the heads of those banks. The book actually covers a longer span than the inter-war period, it includes important information about the banks just prior to the First World War, their activities during the war, and extends into the Second World War. The lead-in is especially important, because it explains so much of what happened during the inter-war period.

The events are too complicated to review in detail, but the author explains them well and shows how the personalities of the Bankers as well as the politics of the times influenced events. Let us just say, mistakes were made.

My one quibble with the book is that the author is rather unsparing in his criticism of the bankers. Although this is somewhat justified, I ended up feeling sympathetic to at least the heads of the US Federal Reserve and the Governor of the Bank of England. Their primary fault was an inability to see beyond the conventional economic wisdom of the times. In point of fact, the only person who seemed to get it right during this time was Maynard Keynes.
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303 of 327 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Four Bankers of Apocalypse January 25, 2009
Liaquat Ahamed, a former World Bank economist and investment fund manager, began research on this book long before the current financial crisis, having no idea of the relevance it would have upon its publication. It is a history of the financial and economic turmoil that began in 1914 and didn't really end until after World War II. He traces the development of this crisis through the lives and actions of four central bankers: Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve of New York, Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Emile Morceau of the Banque de France, and Hjalmer Schacht of the Reichsbank of Germany. The liquidity crisis of 1914 has suddenly become a subject of interest as it bears relevance to today's problems.

Ahamed's central thesis is that the critical decisions made by these four bankers not only caused the Great Depression but also created the conditions for World War II. The most fateful event of all was the decision to adhere to the gold standard. In retrospect, tying the amount of currency a country has in circulation to the amount of gold it has in its vaults appears arbitrary and nonsensical. However, it seemed like a good idea at the time, it provided a universal standard against which countries could stablize their currencies. Unfortunately it became a straight jacket which gave them little room to maneuver.

When the big four bankers came into power in the mid-1920s, the use of the gold standard actually seemed to be working, currencies were stabalized and capital was once again flowing. The problem however was that there was not enough gold in existence to proide enough capital to finance world trade. According to Ahamed, this was the central flaw in the financial system that led to the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
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153 of 175 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could it happen again? May 2, 2009
"I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way did not become still more complicated."

The author begins the epilogue with this insightful quote but ignores the wisdom of it for most of the preceding chapters.

He acknowledges that Roosevelt "did not even pretend to grasp fully the subtleties of international finance" and that few elements of his New Deal policies "were well thought out, some were contradictory and large parts were ineffectual." He then concludes that the temporary abandonment of the gold standard and the devaluation of the dollar "succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations". The conclusion left for the reader seems to be that Roosevelt advocated many foolish polices and, when it came to economics at least, was extremely naive but that since he devalued the dollar he was ultimately vindicated.

The author should have subtitled the book 'How The Gold Standard Broke The World'. Virtually every chapter implies that the gold standard is the explanation behind all the world's economic disruptions. There is no discussion of what the world might have looked like after Roosevelt's policies if there had been no World War, or worse, if the Allies had lost. Without the benefits of supplying and financing the War and subsequent rebuilding of Europe after the War what would have become of the United States economy? Well, I guess we'll never know...or will we?

Given that Keynesian economics is being recycled to address the current economic crisis perhaps we will finally discover whether deficit spending and currency manipulation are truly panaceas or whether this complicated crisis, when looked at in the right way does not become still more complicated.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Husband enjoying it but not as much as he anticipated
Published 2 days ago by Connie Romain
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding World Finance
This is an extremely well written book. It serves to squelch so many commonly-held, yet incorrect, beliefs concerning world finance, especially the myths surrounding the gold... Read more
Published 5 days ago by Raymond Leopold
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and Informative
A very interesting exploration of monetary policy from World War One through the start of the Great Depression told through the major monetary decision makers in the United States,... Read more
Published 11 days ago by Erwin C. Pantel
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Helped me understand why we should never go back to the Gold Standard
Published 14 days ago by Scott Powell
5.0 out of 5 stars I am not a finance person so at times difficult to understand but my...
Very interesting history. I am not a finance person so at times difficult to understand but my overall understanding is that no one can really know what will work best when it... Read more
Published 27 days ago by Mary Ann McLachlan
1.0 out of 5 stars ... writing that 1 star is more suitable for its poor logic and...
I started with 2 stars and realized after writing that 1 star is more suitable for its poor logic and omissions. I am at page 176 of 505 and read the epilog. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Patrick R. McKim
5.0 out of 5 stars Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed To Repeat It
The history of the early 20th century fascinates me ... and "Lords of Finance" adds a lot to my understanding of the era. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Norman Crum
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Great read
Published 1 month ago by wes
5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative
This was a fabulous read and just as important in the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.
Published 1 month ago by Garth Molyneux
5.0 out of 5 stars Astounding
Astounding read.Concise narrative of "the most exclusive club in the world"as it was ballyhooed in the press at the time, and that time is the 1920s1930s A tiny group of central... Read more
Published 1 month ago by John Feesey
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More About the Author

Liaquat Ahamed has been a professional investment manager for twenty-five years. He has worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and the New York-based partnership of Fischer Francis Trees and Watts, where he served as chief executive. He is currently an adviser to several hedge fund groups, including the Rock Creek Group and the Rohatyn Group, is a director of Aspen Insurance Co., and is on the board of trustees of the Brookings Institution. He has degrees in economics from Harvard and Cambridge universities.

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Lords of Finance was Highly Reviewed by New York Times
The New Yorker also had a wonderful review by John Lanchester. It is less a summary and more a mini-seminar--an engaging and even imaginative seminar about central bankers. It surprised me and fascinated me and it made me aware of how little I understand about currency. I do understand how... Read More
Jan 28, 2009 by J. B. Dunn |  See all 4 posts
Bills of Exchange Doctrine
The RBD isn't well-covered these days due to the absence of history of economic thought courses in economics departments around the globe. Nevertheless, I thank you for making the effort to spread awareness of the RBD.
Jan 28, 2013 by Black-Helicopter |  See all 2 posts
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