The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

In This Review

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 2008
432 pp. $29.95
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The outgrowth of a television series, this breezy, fun-to-read book takes its readers from the earliest beginnings of money in ancient Babylon through the recent subprime mortgage crisis (up to May 2008). It explores the origins and subsequent evolution of bonds, stocks, and insurance, correctly taking the view that modern economic performance -- and the fabulously high standards of living it has engendered -- rests on sophisticated financial institutions and practices. Although necessary, however, they do not always perform well, as they are influenced not only by external events, such as wars, but also by alterations in the public mood, from euphoria to despondency and back again. True to his trade, and like a good journalist, the Harvard historian Ferguson captures well, and often with irony, conjunctions of events and recurring patterns of behavior that are often missed or ignored by economists. The book went to press too early to include the denouement of the crisis, but it provides a fine, informative, and occasionally lighthearted introduction to the otherwise arcane subject of finance.