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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World Hardcover – Illustrated, November 13, 2008

4.0 out of 5 stars 366 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

Niall Ferguson makes a strong, compelling case for the development of money and banking as a catalyst for the advancement of civilization. Yet while some critics praised his clear, comprehensible writing, punctuated with anecdotes and historical details, others were nonplussed by his explanations and narrative detours. Several critics also bemoaned the book's choppy and uneven structure—an echo of the episodic, six-part television series it was meant to accompany. So it seems the UK critics liked the book less because they had seen the show. Though perhaps best suited to readers with a fundamental understanding of financial terms and theories, Ferguson's latest work provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the global economy, past and present. For interested readers, it demonstrates how our current fiscal meltdown fits into the bigger historical picture and laments humanity's perennial inability to learn from this history.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

From Booklist

*Starred Review* British historian Ferguson follows Empire (2003), his provocative take on British history, and his equally provocative take on the American “empire” in Colossus (2004), with a not so much provocative as fresh look at the history of money and its ramifications on how modern life has evolved, since to him “money is the root of most progress.” One of his basic premises cannot be argued with: most people in the English-speaking world are woefully ignorant of things financial. To that end, Ferguson, in his desire to educate the general public, presents the history of money within these contexts: the rise of money and the history of credit, and the histories of the bond market, the stock market, insurance, the real-estate market, and international finance. There is an ease to his prose that leaves this complicated subject interesting to and approachable by any general reader. For the history and social-science side of the public library business collection. --Brad Hooper

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 442 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1 edition (November 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201927
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201929
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (366 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Izaak VanGaalen on November 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Niall Ferguson has written an easily accessible and very entertaining history of finance, ranging from the clay tokens of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago to the hedge funds of today. The title of this book has apparently been modelled on Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man," and like that book it will be made into a television series. Being a television celebrity is not something that wins the admiration of one's peers in the history profession, to say the least. But those little rebukes are relatively mild compared to the scorn he received for his political views in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. In those works he argued that empire was beneficial not only to the mother country but the dominated countries as well. In this work he chronicles not only the history of money but also makes a case for liberalized finance.

Ferguson examines the financial subplot behind some of the major historical powers such as the role of money in ancient Mesopotamia, the denarius in Roman society, and gold and silver in the civilization of the Incas. He is very good in his descriptions of financial families like the Medicis and the Rothchilds, and how they became banking dynasties. Another memorable episode was the rise of Amsterdam as the world's financial center and the center's subsequent shift to London.

History is also filled with financial disasters of which we are well aware today.
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Format: Hardcover
Niall Ferguson's THE ASCENT OF MONEY, as its subtitle promises, is a broad overview of financial history, from the dawn of the first form of currency in Ancient Mesopotamia to the proliferation of complex residential asset-backed securities early in the twenty-first century. In six chapters, Ferguson traces the genesis and evolution of the pillars of modern finance: currency, bonds, corporate stock, insurance, and real estate. A final chapter focuses on the US and China's symbiotic debtor-creditor relationship, and an afterword discusses the current global recession and includes a somewhat strained evolutionary analogy comparing financial development to natural selection.

The objective here is to illuminate the modern economic system by surveying its historical origins, and to a large extent, Ferguson succeeds. The book is targeted to a lay audience and such readers are certain to walk away from a reading with an enhanced understanding of modern economics. The author generally takes the time to explain even elementary concepts in an effective manner, but there are also several maddening instances throughout where he casually references somewhat arcane metrics and complex ideas (e.g., VaR) without any explanation as to their meaning and significance. In this respect, Ferguson can be at times simultaneously too basic for the advanced reader and too complex for the novice.

Never dry reading, the narrative flows freely over its 358 pages, with perhaps the most interesting and edifying chapters being those on the bond, equity, and real estate markets. I especially enjoyed Ferguson's exploration of the five stages of "bubble" (displacement, euphoria, mania, distress, and revulsion).
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Format: Hardcover
Historian Niall Ferguson teaches economic history at Harvard so he certainly has credentials for a book like this. While his historical knowledge is impressive his financial claims can seem a bit cavalier and broad-sweeping.

Ferguson celebrates financiers as the source of modern wealth and prosperity. He backs up his claim by a historical examination of the last 500 years. This includes the Italians in the late Middle Ages, as well as the Dutch in the 17th century and Britain's empire success which he partially attributes to the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694.

After setting the historical context Ferguson becomes a pundit on the current global situation. Commenting on those who speculate in the financial markets today Ferguson writes, "When people have a run of luck, they very quickly impute this to their own brilliance. Once you start interpreting your good fortune as your skill, you're very quickly a master of the universe who can never fall. That, of course, is precisely when you fall." He likens financiers to gamblers, which may not be a completely fair connection. Of course there is risk involved in investing, but the primary concern in the financial world is how to limit that risk, react wisely, and be patient.

As Ferguson considers the financial crises his assessment is neither overly positive nor calamitous. "Before this crisis," Ferguson says, "there were people who thought there would never be another recession--that kind of crazy, myopic, unhistorical belief. That was followed in the last month or so by wild panic, as if it's the end of the world."

Ferguson states the obvious when he declares we will all be affected by the current financial mess, and that it will take a while for the market to correct itself.

In short, if you like history more than finance, this is going to be an enjoyable book for you. However, if it's the other way around the details might be suffocating.
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