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Can You Spare a Dime?


The historian Alan Taylor used to say, mischievously, that the only point of history is history. The idea that one could use it to predict the future, still more to avoid past mistakes, was pure illusion. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, a history of financial innovation written as a television documentary1 as well as a book, offers a neat test of Taylor’s theory. Ferguson can claim some powers of anticipation. History convinced him in 2006 that the good times could not last “indefinitely.” This was an insight to which the Nobel Prize–winning mathematical economists who devised the Black-Scholes formula—the complicated model for pricing share options used by the highly leveraged firm Long-Term Capital Management, which famously crashed in 1998—were oblivious. Their formula persuaded them that a massive sell-off could occur only once in four million years.

History has alerted Ferguson to the perils of the state relying on the bond market for its financing. On Lou Dobbs Tonight on November 13, 2008, he said:

How much can the international bond market absorb of new ten-year treasuries?… And if yields go up, the cost of government borrowing goes up, and the thing begins to spiral out of control….That’s why you need the historical perspective….

Between the two opposed views that history can teach us nothing and that the future is simply a reflection of the past lies the sensible middle position that history, like any other way of experiencing the past, can give us “vague” knowledge of what may lie in store for humanity. Only history-free economists could have bought the “efficient market hypothesis,” which claims that the market will price shares correctly, with deviations from accurate prediction occurring only at random. But knowledge of history would not have enabled anyone to predict the timing and extent of the present meltdown. Above all, history cannot settle the question of what our attitude should be toward money, which is at root a moral question.

The Ascent of Money is a superb book, which illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of history for understanding what is happening now. It is written with the narrative flair, eye for detail, range of reference, and playfulness of language that we have come to expect from this exceptionally versatile historian. Ferguson is clearly fascinated by the subject of finance, knows a huge amount about it, and communicates his enthusiasm to the reader. Many parts of the story will be familiar enough to specialists, but Ferguson has a special ability to color even the familiar with strange and unusual examples, and he weaves together the separate strands of the financial tapestry with great skill. Some of the financial material is quite technical, but there is no attempt to “dumb down.” The book is an all too rare example of good, even dense, scholarship finding a way to engage the larger public.

Ferguson’s strategically themed structure starts with the origins of money, and shows, in successive chapters, how money found a way of multiplying itself through the development of banking, bond, equity, and insurance markets, and derivative instruments of all kinds until the world economy came to resemble what Charles Morris has called an inverted pyramid of debt resting on an increasingly narrow base of real assets.2 The large claim Ferguson makes is that we owe our prosperity more to finance than to technology. Throughout history men have been more ingenious at finding ways to make money than to make things. As Gibbon shrewdly noted, without the “incitement” given by money to the “powers and passions of human nature,” societies could scarcely have emerged “from the grossest barbarism.”3

Money, according to Ferguson, is not a thing but a relationship—above all, a relationship between creditor and debtor. As soon as time and distance start to elapse between exchanges of things of value—which happened at the start of civilization—people needed something more than barter. Farmers needed to borrow while they waited for the harvest to ripen; merchants needed to borrow while they waited for shipments to arrive; above all governments needed to borrow to finance their wars. The three functions of money—as a means of exchange, a unit of accounting, and a store of value—developed to bridge the interval between purchase and payment. Bills of exchange or “promises to pay” seem to have been used for the settlement of debts from the earliest times to overcome the inconvenience of shipping the precious metals.

Primitive banks, or safe depositories, must also have existed from the earliest times. The actual word “bank” originated from the Italian banca, or bench, at which the medieval moneychangers sat to do their business. Bankers soon learned how to augment their profits by lending out their deposits at interest. The Medici of fifteenth-century Florence were the first famous banking family. They made their fortune by buying and selling “bonds,” the debts issued by cash-strapped monarchs. These bits of paper bound the borrower to repay within a specified period of time. The bond market started when these bonds became tradable. The bond market, the first truly modern financial market, was perfected in eighteenth-century England; great merchant bank underwriters of loans like the Rothschilds dominated the public finance of nineteenth-century Europe. Fractional reserve banking, an early innovation, starting with Sweden’s Riksbank in 1656, enabled banks to make loans in excess of the money deposited with them—on the assumption that “depositors were highly unlikely to ask en masse for their money.”

Ferguson rightly points out that the early growth of European finance was driven more by the needs of the state than by those of commerce. His thesis, familiar from his two volumes on the Rothschilds,4 is that state policy determines the development of finance, not vice versa. This reverses the usual Marxist argument that finance controls governments. The Rothschilds started as court bankers. The Bank of England was created in 1694, mainly to help the government with war finance, by converting a portion of the government’s debt into shares, in return for which the bank was given special privileges, such as a partial monopoly on issuing banknotes.

England’s rise to world power in the eighteenth century was based on the ability of the British government to borrow larger sums at cheaper rates than any of its rivals; hence the importance for the nineteenth-century public mind of maintaining the state’s creditworthiness by balancing the government budget. In the twentieth century it was the eagerness of democratic governments to extend home ownership—as an antidote to revolution—that later led to the practice by which home mortgages are converted into securities and sold around the world.

Long-term investment needed a different financing structure, and this was found in the development of the joint-stock, limited-liability company and the emergence of stock markets. By enabling many individuals to pool their resources by buying shares of a particular enterprise, while protecting them from losing everything if the project failed, the limited-liability company was one of the greatest innovations in financial history. The Dutch East India Company, formally chartered in 1602, was the first company to issue its own stock and bonds through the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. Over its two-hundred-year history the average dividend it paid out to its 358 shareholders was 18 percent a year. It helped that it was a chartered monopoly, with the power of the government behind it.

Ferguson notes that the history of stock markets has been punctuated by spectacular bubbles and crashes. Some of these have been caused by fraudulent company promoters: Kenneth Lay of Enron had a worthy predecessor in John Law, whose Mississippi Company went spectacularly bust in 1720. Many fraudsters, like Ivar Kreuger, the “Swedish match king” who committed suicide in 1932, were men of vision who turned to crime only to rescue great projects that had gone wrong. But the fraudsters could get away with it—for a time—because of what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” of investors. Why are stock markets so volatile? Ferguson believes it is because they are

mirrors of the human psyche. Like homo sapiens, they can become depressed. They can even suffer complete breakdowns. Yet hope—or is it amnesia?—always seems able to triumph over such bad experiences.

This is a good analogy, but, as I shall argue, it is not an explanation.

As Ferguson tells it, volatility is inherent in financial markets, but bad monetary policy can make it worse. Central banks were created, in part, to stop the “over-issue” of notes by private banks, and to act as “lender of the last resort.” Following Milton Friedman, Ferguson believes that the Great Depression of 1929–1933 was caused by bad monetary policy—money was kept so cheap that a huge stock market bubble formed, and, when it burst, the Federal Reserve Board failed to provide the banking system with sufficient liquidity. This view that monetary policy alone is sufficient to keep economies relatively stable is unlikely to survive its harsh confrontation with present reality.

The next step in money’s ascent is the development of insurance markets to guard against risk. Ferguson tells the story through three central episodes. The start of insurance depended on the work of the mathematicians at Port-Royal in eighteenth-century France, who laid the basis for the modern theory of probability. Provided that the relative frequency of an occurrence was known from past information, it would be possible to insure people against the risk of it happening to them. This insight was applied by the two clergymen founders of the Scottish Ministers’ Widows’ Fund in Glasgow (Ferguson’s hometown) in 1743. They worked out the premiums required to create a fund that, when invested, would cover payments to beneficiaries on the deaths of their husbands. As conditions of life eased, and people demanded greater protection against its hazards, insurance and pension funds “would rise to become some of the biggest investors in the world—the so-called institutional investors who today dominate global financial markets.”

From the late nineteenth century onward, the state increasingly took on the “insurance” function, providing social security and health benefits to the whole population through the tax system. This was because private insurance companies left a sizable fraction of the population uninsured and uninsurable. Ferguson unusually, but effectively, uses Japan rather than Germany or Britain as his main example of the way the state nationalized risk—mainly, one suspects, because it bests illustrates his favorite thesis that financial systems grew up to serve the military needs of the state. Social security, in this view, was the reward for military sacrifice. This was particularly so in Japan.

Ferguson’s third example comes from Chile, which he uses to illustrate the return from government social insurance to private—albeit compulsory—insurance. The tax-financed welfare state had never been fully accepted by conservatives, who believed it rotted the character by removing the incentive to save and by separating benefit from individual contribution. Influenced by Milton Friedman and the “Chicago boys,” José Piñera, General Augusto Pinochet’s minister of labor from 1979 to 1981, privatized Chile’s cumbersome state pension scheme. According to Piñera, “What had begun as a system of large-scale insurance had simply become a system of taxation, with today’s contributions being used to pay today’s benefits, rather than to accumulate a fund for future use.”

  1. 1

    The two-hour documentary The Ascent of Money airs on PBS on January 13, 2009.

  2. 2

    Charles R. Morris, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (PublicAffairs, 2008), p. xii.

  3. 3

    Quoted in The Oxford Book of Money, edited by Kevin Jackson (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 18; from Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Book I (1776).

  4. 4

    The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798–1848 (Viking, 1998) and The House of Rothschild: The World’s Banker, 1849–1999 (Viking, 1999); reviewed in these pages by Robert Skidelsky, December 16, 1999.

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