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191 of 204 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Central Banks in the First 40 years of the 20th Century
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...
Published on February 7, 2009 by Donald Costello

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148 of 168 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could it happen again?
"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...
Published on May 2, 2009 by David M. Gondek


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191 of 204 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
By 
Donald Costello "dcnj1" (Bridgewater, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
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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. If we are to judge everyone against the standard of the most brilliant mind in their field, very very few of us are going to come out well.

The most important point the book makes is how factors other than purely economic issues play a role in making economic decisions, but how the consequences of those economic decisions then rebound onto the wider political history of the times. While the book deals with a different time and political landscape, the parallels to our own times are VERY frightening. The author does not emphasize the parallels, and the book was actually completed before many parallel events occurred. To my mind that just makes them more compelling.
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302 of 326 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Four Bankers of Apocalypse, January 25, 2009
By 
Izaak VanGaalen (San Francisco, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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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. Of course, the chain of events was more complicated than that and Ahamed recognizes the complexity. Each of the four bankers and their respective countries were pursuing their own agendas as opposed to trying to save the system as a whole, the gold standard was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Ahamed has written an interesting history of what otherwise would be a fairly dull story. It makes one think about flaws in the system - like sub-prime mortgages, derivatives and the excessive use of credit - and how things could have been different if they had been recognized earlier.
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148 of 168 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could it happen again?, May 2, 2009
By 
David M. Gondek (Fox Lake, WI United States) - See all my reviews
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"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.

It was not the gold standard itself that politicians and opportunists wanted to be rid of. They wanted to be free from dealing with sound accounting and moral principles that interfered with their ambition for increased wealth and perpetuation of power. These are the same 'masters of the universe' who today want to be rid of mark-to-market accounting. It is always defended with arguments about the public good and about 'optimizing' economic activity but somehow, somewhere this kind of capitalism always ensures that the unwashed masses continue to be exploited for the enrichment of the few.

This book is a great example of the syllogism. It lays out a great many facts and details and one main conclusion. Unfortunately the connection between these facts and the conclusion is never adequately defended. The rooster crows and the sun rises and the rest remains virtually unexplored. At best this book should be the beginning of a discussion of the gold standard...certainly not the end.

And, yes, this can happen again. Each generation looks back on those that came before them with a supercilious attitude:

"On August 30, 1914, barely a month into the fighting, Charles Conant of the New York Times reported that the international banking community was very confident that there would not be the sort of unlimited issue of paper [money] and its steady depreciation, which had wrought such inflationary havoc in previous wars. Monetary science is better understood at the present time than in those days, declared the bankers confidently."

It seems that all economic systems and philosophies suffer from the same intrinsic flaw...human nature.
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62 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Four Men Could Have Prevented the Depression: Hopefully, Treasury Secretary Geithner and Adviser Larry Summers Have Read It!, January 22, 2009
Lords of Finance is a gripping story with forgotten yet worthy characters and villains hidden inside the drama of The Great Crash and Depression. It is a lively and fascinating "event by event" look at the slow motion lead up to The Great Crash, and the four men that could have prevented the Depression.

Each thought they were pursuing a reasonable course (think prisoners dilemma), yet their tragic lack of vision and coordination doomed the world to a long and painful decade of decline.

This book will keep you up at night (probably afraid for what is left of your IRA, portfolio, or home value) reading to find out what has happened to these four men and how they continually missed opportunities.

In the end they were overtaken by their biases, rivalries, vacations and countries they represented: The United States, Britain, France and Germany.

Falling stock prices, falling international trade, falling prices, falling commodities, a rush to hold dollars, declining interest rates but lack of loan availability, decisions to save some politically connected banks but not others, and a lack of consensus on an answer, all make 1929 and 2009 have an eerie similarity?

Substitute a real estate bubble for fixed priced gold, reparations for sub prime, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for Treasury Secretary Paul Mellon, and the book reads like an echo of the slow motion days leading up to the Great Crash and the Depression that followed.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece, February 27, 2009
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Mr. Ahamed has written a wonderful book on both the financiers who dominated money policy in the period between the two world wars and the economic history of that period. Mr. Ahamed writes very clearly and well about both the bankers and the period. His writing is also as vivid and interesting as it is clear. And Mr. Ahamed's writing imparts a extremely vast amount of detail and information on the economics of the 1920s and the Great Depression. He has provided an extensive list of references along with a vast amount of footnotes. Mr. Ahamed's work is history and economic history at its best.

Among the major gems of information provided by Mr. Ahamed is the baneful effect of the gold standard between the world wars. As other economists such as Peter Temin have indicated, each economy began to recover from the Great Depression when the economy left the gold standard almost invariably. Mr. Ahamed demonstrates the absurdity of Montagu Norman's policy of restoring the British pound to its pre World War I value in gold.

Mr. Ahamed also demonstrates how World War I drastically changed economic conditions so that the British led prewar gold standard was an impossibility. He also demonstrates the pernicious and poisonous effect of the reparations imposed on the former Central Powers by the Treaty of Versailles. These reparations gravely hindered international cooperation. And Mr. Ahamed makes evident that the central bankers have a colossal impact on the economy and the lives of individuals all over the world.

This book is a must read for all Americans, particularly those who have studied economics.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mistakes Men Make, February 11, 2009
By 
Michael B. Crutcher (Seattle, WA and Bonita Springs, FL) - See all my reviews
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How did the world plunge into the financial crisis of 1929-1933 and are we likely to follow that dismal path today? To probe this question, Liaquat Ahmaed, a professional investment manager, has written an absolutely absorbing economic history. He focuses on the principal players ("The Lords of Finance") in the financial world of the 1920's and 1930's, the central bankers of the United States, Britain, France and Germany. They were regarded at the time as members of the world's most exclusive club. Forgotten men today (and all were men,) Montagu Norman (the U.K.), Benjamin Strong (the U.S.), Hjalmar Schacht (Germany) and Emile Moreau (France) struggled with how to deal with the enormous reparation payments due from Germany under The Versailles Treaty, the likewise huge war debts owned by the victorious powers to the United States, and when to return to the gold standard, which had been abandoned during the war.
These financial titans were "the best and the brightest" of their times and they made error after error in dealing with these problems. As Ahmaed writes, they were a "group of men who understood none of this [the Crash of 1929], whose ideas about the economy were at best outmoded and at worst plain wrong." Germany could never realistically repay its reparations debt. Similarly, Britain and France could never pay back the U.S. for money borrowed during the war. (Of all the allied powers, only Finland finally paid of its World War One debt.) Returning to the gold standard was a huge mistake. Among economists, only Britain's Maynard Keynes realized that the gold standard would hamstring economic growth. (Of course Keynes also realized the futility of reparation payments in his famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.) When the financial crisis struck, none of the central banks adequately played the role of "lender of last resort." While under Roosevelt the Federal Reserve was reformed and the U.S. government took an activist role in the economy, it was a case of too little, too late.
By focusing on the lives of these key bankers, each of who was idiosyncratic, Mr. Ahmaed has produced a fascinating volume, full of interesting personalities (Bernard Barauch, Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover and Dean Acheson, to name a few). Ahmaed speculates that had Benjamin Strong (head of the New York Fed) not died in 1928, there might have been a figure strong enough to pull together the central bankers for a concerted attack on the financial crisis. (It is also scary to consider that our central bankers today are "the best and the brightest" and may also be making terrible but different mistakes, blinded as they are by the orthodoxy of today's economic thinking.)
Ahmaed writes with grace and style. It is a wonderful achievement for a man who apparently is new to the writing of history. He also explains the mysteries of international finance, gold reserves and currency fluctuations in terms anybody can grasp. For an understanding of the financial climate that led to The Great Depression, and for pure entertainment, The Lords of Finance is highly recommended.
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77 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Massive Speculation leads to a Depression.Hoover got it right, February 16, 2009
By 
Michael Emmett Brady "mandmbrady" (Bellflower, California ,United States) - See all my reviews
The author of this book has done an excellent job in analyzing what the main cause of the Great Depression was.The crucial pages in the book that provide the answer are pp.295-302.It is here that we find Benjamin Strong,in August of 1927, who knew full well that the United States was in the midst of not one ,but two raging, speculative bubbles,one in stocks and the other in real estate,forced through a one half of one percent rate cut that simply fueled the specultive bubbles even further.We find Herbert Hoover,blamed for the Great Depression in the United States,calling the future outcome one hundred percent correctly when he stated that the speculation of the late 1920's would lead to a Depression unless the banker financed speculative build up was stopped.Hoover's attempt to stop the insane rate cut failed.President Coolidge simply pointed out that there was nothing he could do because the Federal Reserve System was independent of the Federal Government.He stated that he had no authority to attempt to get the FRS to reverse the rate cut ,which they eventually did in February ,1928.
Unfortunately,by that time that action was too little and too late.Only a policy of credit restriction applied against speculators might have mitigated the eventual depression.

I highly recommend the book.It puts to rest once and for all the canard ,repeatedly told by Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman,that the FRS was part of the Federal Government and was controlled by government bureaucrats who told the bankers what to do.It is just the reverse.The bankers were so powerful that they could tell an American president what to do.It is interesting to realize that the bankers have again brought the United States to the edge of financial catastrophe with their highly speculative loan policies
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lords of Finance, February 20, 2009
Liaquat Ahamad does a thorough and engaging job of describing the men and the factors that drove us towards the Great Depression. Its' scary to see that history is repeating itself as we see the collapse of the real estate and stock speculative bubbles.

Its' amazing to me that the factors that caused the Great Depression, from the actions of the Federal Reserve, the control of the banks in restricting the flow of money, and the inability of the President to control the actions of these groups is largely overlooked. The easy way is to blame President Hoover and give FDR credit for ending it, when the truth is far more complex and relevant today as we face a similar crisis

We have given the banks and Wall Street the freedom to take advantage of deregulation, and we are once again in a financial crisis. Only when you understand the past, can you prevent repeating it. Ahamad's book should be required reading for every Congressman and media member in the country. Only then, this crisis can be met head-on.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Limited Usefulness, October 14, 2011
By 
James R. Maclean (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Paperback)
Biography is a popular and often compelling way of narrating history. Liaquat Ahamed took on a daunting challenge in organizing an historical narrative around the lives of four men who were central bankers on the eve of the Great Depression. The choice of these four men is not perfect; they were only in office concurrently between June 1926 and Oct 1928.(1) If we ignore Moreau--as Ahamed mostly does--then the period is a little longer, from Nov '23 to Oct '28. Finally, if Ahamed had included Korekiyo Takahashi (Finance minister of Japan 7 times between 1913 and 1936), *Lords* would have seized the opportunity to tie this momentous period with our own times.(2)

However, it's unreasonable of me to complain that Ahamed did not write the book I would have liked him to. I nonetheless have a lot of problems with the book Ahamed did write. I'm going to attempt to summarize what these are.

(I) Economics

All four men were avid fans of the gold bullion standard, a variety of the gold standard that prevailed in most of the developed world during the years before the Great Depression. There are several types of gold standards, and each country had slightly different rules for administering theirs. Much of the controversy that Ahamed describes involves transfers among the four countries represented: Germany was compelled to pay about $12.5 billion in reparations from 1920 to 1988, but only paid $3 billion (ending in 1932). The USA, as the largest creditor to the Allies, eventually agreed to forgive about 40% of the debts owed to it, but failed to get a concession from the Allies on reparations.

This is the essence of the book. Ahamed has, in effect, little to say about the economics or finance involved, and I was stunned to realize after I finished that, in fact, there was so little information here. Yes, the gold [bullion] standard was a major problem because deficits in the balance of payments for each country had to be suppressed with interest rate hikes. A corollary to this is that the gold standard itself was broken by the political demands for big transfers among the national governments. Financial crises could arise despite balanced budgets and flourishing economies, simply because a country suffered a net outflow of gold.

Beyond this, Ahamed fails to deliver. It can be taken for granted that he understood the economic and financial issues, but was afraid readers would be intimidated by them. One exception is the real bills doctrine, which he upbraids repeatedly (p.80, 119-126, and 175). He rebukes it for being procyclical (i.e., it expands the money supply during booms and contracts it during recessions), but so does the quantity theory. (3) His exasperation with the RBD reflects an economist bias: if only the bankers would adopt the right economic doctrines! He adjusts somewhat by attributing superior character to the rightly-guided bankers, viz. Strong and Norman, but then shifts emphasis when they behave foolishly.

Ahamed and I happen to agree on a lot of points in economics, but this is not relevant to my view of the book. On the gold standard, I think he is partly right but for the wrong reasons, and his conclusions are a logical muddle. He knows a lot more than he lets on, but he lets on very little and condenses his knowledge badly.

(II) Organization

The organization is terrible. It's not merely an irritating hodgepodge of poorly chosen "facts" (e.g., Why is it relevant that Walter Funk, Schacht's successor as minister of the economy, was "an alcoholic homosexual"?); it's the strange choice of sources to which he gives credence. Strong is invariably depicted as wise, strong, and effective, even when he gives bad advice. He urges Norman to return the pound to gold convertibility, but warns that England will be left to face the consequences alone (the USA was, of course, going to make economic policy based on domestic considerations, just like every other country). The result is a calamity, but Strong is never criticized. And remember this is a book about economic policy between the World Wars, yet, Strong's role in the extremely important 1920-1921 Contraction is passed over in a single paragraph. It's as if a book about James Madison's presidency passed over the War of 1812 in a single paragraph of vague platitudes, and never mentioned it again.

(III) Inaccuracies and Worse

On p.364, Ahamed quotes Pres. Hoover's paraphrase of Andrew Mellon's reaction to the Great Crash: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks,..." etc. Hoover, who had inherited Treasury Secretary Mellon from his predecessor Coolidge, put these words in Mellon's mouth after Mellon was dead (Hoover wrote his memoirs in 1952; Mellon died in 1937). No other source exists for the quote, and Hoover's account is self-serving. And indeed, on the previous page Ahamed observes that Hoover often made spectacularly untrue statements about economic conditions during the Depression. This sort of selective trust is common.(4) The vilification of Adolph Miller interferes with an accurate presentation of economic doctrines of the day.

Finally, the book is afflicted by a total myopia towards the non-English speaking world. Most of the information about the period related to France and Germany is of Wikipedia depth and reliability; Japan is never mentioned at all, and Ahamed's home country of India appears only in lists or résumés. Yet India was severely affected by developments and had long since played a major role in the dynamics of the gold standard.(5) The causes of Germany's hyperinflation are not explored; Ahamed guesses that the then-head of the Reichsbank Rudolf von Havenstein) simply didn't expect the inflation to occur, despite having three years to notice it happening. And so on.

UPDATE (23 November 2012): I altered this review because I believe it was much too harsh. Since reading this book, I have read many others on the topic and been reminded how difficult it is to create even a 3-star book, and Ahamed has made a good faith effort.
__________________________________________________
(1) The last one to begin his job as central banker was Émile Moreau, who was appointed to the Bank of France 26 June 1926; Benjamin Strong was the first to leave: he died of complications during surgery 16 October 1928. Strong served 14 years at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during a period of complete FRB-NY dominance over the entire system. Soon after he died, power shifted to the Board of Governors in Washington. Montagu Norman was appointed governor of the Bank of England in 1920 and served until 1944. According to Ahamed, he was completely sidelined after 1933. Hjalmar Schacht served at the Reichsbank November 1923 to March 1930, when he was dismissed; he returned for four years as Nazi minister of economics before running afoul of the Nazis.

(2) Takahashi was, obviously, not head of the central bank of Japan. However, the financial system of Japan was more directly supervised by the cabinet than those of other countries, and central bank heads in Japan were mostly administrators. Also, Takahashi is an interesting case of an early effort to implement Keynesian policies. Were they as successful as rumored to be? Two years before this book was published, there was a burst of major scholarly research about Takahashi in English. Unfortunately, Japan is never mentioned in the entire book.

(3 According to FRS historian Allan Meltzer (p.201), both Adolph Miller--whom Ahamed castigates ferociously--and Strong--whom he reveres--adhered to slightly different versions of the RBD. The key difference was that Miller hoped the Fed could use direct pressure on member banks to direct lendable funds to the real economy, rather than financial speculation, and Strong did not (see also Friedman & Schwartz, p.266). Miller was the one academic economist on the Board of Governors, which was inconsequential at this time. For a good introduction to the RBD, see [CSUN Prof. of economics] Mike Sproul's website, "The Real Bills Doctrine."

"Procyclical" means the policy moves in the same direction as the real business cycle; if the economy contracts, a procyclical policy intensifies the contraction. The "opposite" view of the RBD is the quantity theory of money, which has usually been the prevailing view in economics. Both doctrines can be administered in a countercyclical (or procyclical) manner, since neither has anything to do with choosing a future money supply to target.

Meltzer's book examines very carefully the FRS's own views about what went wrong between 1927-1933; ironically, Meltzer notes that Adolph Miller became a lonely voice on the Board calling for loose money and an end to sterilization of the incoming gold reserves, while his colleagues mostly thought quantitative easing was quackery.

(4) To be fair to Ahamed, this is a common problem faced by researchers; but almost none of Ahamed's sources are primary. In a few cases he mentions the primary source, like the Hamlin Diaries, as being quoted in a secondary source, such as Lester Chandler's biography. Here is where Ahamed could have added value, and did not. His account of the full story behind Irving Fisher's gaffe "I think stocks have reached a permanently high plateau," is, however, very good and stands out as unusually appealing.

(5) See, for example, James R. MacLean, " 1893, India, and the USA," blog post dated 28 Feb 2010.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twentieth Century Nightmare, March 12, 2009
By 
Gustave Rabson (Haverhill, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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I bought this book expecting (and dreading) a boring technical tome on banking (a subject that I find intriguing but difficult). To my delight it was not boring. On the contrary it is an exciting and riveting book, from cover to cover. It goes very far to explain the twentieth century. I am afraid that the title will turn people away. It should have a title more like "The Twentieth Century Nightmare."
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Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (Paperback - December 29, 2009)
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