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Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World Hardcover – January 22, 2009
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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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 ‚Äògold standard,' Mr. Ahamed reminds me of the fellow who condemned ‚Äòpainting' because he had no use for Andy Warhol."Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Lords of Finance covers International finances with starting with some overview of pre 1900 Central bank dealings and goes up to the Bretton-Woods agrement that fixed the dollar to gold and other curriences to the dollar. Especially interesting is the German hyper-inflation after WW I which was partially, if not wholly, self-inflicted by Germany in an attempt to forestall onerous reparations payment. But during this same period Germany also borrowed money from the U.S. to build municipal swimming pools. It would seem that Germany inflicted sever damage on its own economy to avoid reparations payment. This failure to pay by Germany led, in 1923, to the French invasion and military takeover of the Ruhr valley: Germany's industrial heartland.
Lords of Finance also covers the tabloid side of finance. Joseph Caillaux, was a radical who had suggested an income tax be adopted in France. Le Figaro, a conservative newspaper, then published the love letters that Joseph Caillaux had written to a former mistress. Madame Caillaux, his wife, was upset and purchased a gun. She went to the offices of Le Figaro and waited two hours for the editor to come out. She said to him, "You know why I'm here", and shot him dead. She was put on trial, but an all-male jury found her not-guilty as it was a crime of passion. Monsieur Caillaux had his own problems and was convicted of financial irregularities. When he returned to the Ministry of Finance, "an American newsmagazine reported that it was as if Benedict Arnold, instead of being executed, had been barred from Philadelphia, exiled to the country, then pardoned, and appointed secretary or war. "
I had first started reading "Golden Fetters: the Gold Standard and the Great Depression" which covers roughly the same ground as Lords of Finance. But Golden Fetters is more technical and a bit over my head (I have no formal economics training) but very informative. It has incisive analyses of parliamentary vs. US style two party democracy, and looks at the political polarization that occurred in Germany and Japan over who should pay taxes (sound familiar?). This gridlock helped destroy those economies (think Tea Party blocking the repayment of national debt). That led to death squads and right wing takeovers. The military put people back to work: building armaments. In Germany they made lots of guns but butter and domestic needs were hard to come by. About a third of the way through I started reading "Lords of Finance".
Lords of Finance covers pretty much the same ground as Golden Fetters but in less technical terms and less depth. Golden Fetters gives detailed accounts of Gold reserves, balance of payments, foreign currency reserves etc. buttressed by pages of charts graphs and tables of same for every major country in Europe and North and South America. I just skipped the tables. Lords of Finance gives a clear picture of the economic forces at work and the theories behind them plus details about the people who controlled the world's economies.
Both books agree that the Gold Standard is a strait-jacket that is fine in normal times, but when things get dicey (WW I, WW II, Great Depression, recession of 2008) it proves fatal. That is why the world's economies were forced off the gold standard over and over again. When countries tried to return they paid a high price in fewer exports and rising unemployment. The Gold Standard constrains the money supply and hence economic growth. Bankers love it as it discourages inflation and encourages deflation. Think, do you want to pay back your mortgage in dollars worth more or less than the ones you borrowed. Inflation: good for debtors, bad for bankers; deflation good for bankers and savers, bad for debtors. Deflation: prices go down (good for savers), exports are hurt, and unemployment goes up. Winston Churchill called returning to the gold standard, "the biggest blunder in his life." He blamed it on the bad advice that he had received from the Governor of the bank of England (Norman) and by the experts of the Treasury who called the gold standard "knave-proof. It could not be rigged for political reasons." It would prevent Britain from "Living in a fool's paradise of false prosperity." Learning from this Churchill, during WW II, would trust his gut and let the military "experts" be dammed.
History repeats itself, Oh boy does it. In 1931 the US government could have stopped the first of a string of bank failures by injecting thirty-two million dollars into the Bank of the United States (no government affiliation). In 2008 thirty billion dollars in guarantees would have saved Lehman Bros. For want of a nail a shoe was lost...
Good books: The End of Wall Street (highly recommended) - a footnoted blow-by-blow of the crises of 2008; Thirteen Bankers (also highly recommended)- history of U.S. banking from roughly 1900 to 2009. Golden Fetters: the Gold Standard and the Great Depression 1919-1939 (rather technical): A monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman (very technical and way over my head); and of course, Lords of Finance (a must).