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.”
The Chilean reform encouraged workers to opt out of tax-financed state pensions into personal retirement accounts, managed by licensed but competing pension funds, and financed by compulsory deductions from wages. Although most Western countries remained wedded to their traditional single-payer welfare states, set up during and after World War II, the Chilean model was imitated across Latin America and emerging market economies. Despite what he calls its “shadow side”—it “leaves a substantial proportion of the population with no pension coverage at all”—Ferguson clearly approves of the Chilean reform, traveling to Santiago to see firsthand what he considers its beneficent results. It will be interesting to see whether the provision for universal health care promised by the Obama administration follows the European model—by extending tax-financed Medicare for everyone along the lines proposed by Paul Krugman5—or the Chilean/Singapore model in which compulsory insurance premiums, paid out of wages, provide the contributors with individual entitlements.
Land and the buildings on it—or in modern parlance “bricks and mortar”—have played a crucial part in the development of the financial (and economic) system, because “the land can’t run away,” and is therefore easy to use as collateral. Mortgaging their property became the way improvident landowners maintained extravagant lifestyles and, in later, more sober times, the way house owners raised money to start businesses. The spread of home ownership in the twentieth century—largely promoted by government in an attempt to make capitalism more popular—made possible a vast expansion of collateralized debt, and was the main stimulus to the development of the conversion of debt into securities.
Ferguson points out that property “is a security only to the person who lends you money…. By contrast, the borrower’s sole security against the loss of his property to such creditors is his income.” This is not quite true. The lender’s security also depends on the income—actual or expected—of the borrower, because, although the property cannot “run away,” it may lose its value, or it may be costly, and even impossible, for the creditor to get possession of it. Ferguson might have told the story of the costly mistake made by France’s Credit Lyonnais, which set up its own proprietary credit-rating agency in the late nineteenth century. Its mistake was to rate the credit-worthiness of governments not on their debt-to-income but on their debt-to-property ratios. The imperial government of Russia got top rating, because, despite its disordered finances, of all governments it owned the most property. On the basis of this rating, French investors snapped up tsarist bonds. They lost all their money, not because the property disappeared but because the government did. Credit Lyonnais failed to take into account “political risk.”
The tsarist government would now be considered a subprime borrower. Yet today’s vastly more sophisticated credit-rating agencies made the same mistake in giving triple-A ratings to bonds that took no account of the income of the borrowers—what the professionals called “toxic waste.” Ferguson notes that a disproportionate number of sub-prime borrowers were ethnic minorities and wonders whether subprime is a new euphemism for black. Both Democratic and Republican administrations brought pressure on lenders to relax their rules in order to spread home ownership—for example, not to press borrowers for full documentation. And indeed home ownership—or bank ownership of homes—did expand greatly in the last ten years. The bubble burst in 2007 when a rise in the federal funds rate from 1 percent to 5.4 percent coincided with the expiring of the enticing “teaser” rate periods that lenders had offered subprime borrowers. Repayments were then set at much higher interest rates and many could not pay.
The sober conclusion Ferguson draws from this fascinating story of financial incontinence and skullduggery is that property ownership is not the “magic bullet” it is often claimed to be. This is the basis of his criticism of the exaggerated claim of the economist Hernando de Soto that the path to Latin American prosperity lies in secure property rights.6 “In short, there was irrational exuberance about bricks and mortar and the capital gains they could yield.”
Ferguson’s last chapter, “From Empire to Chimerica,” argues convincingly that it was the investment of billions of dollars of Chinese savings in US Treasury bonds that fueled the US debt binge, by enabling Greenspan to keep money so cheap for so long. In a bravura passage that rounds off his story of money’s ascent, Ferguson writes:
“Chimerica”—China plus America—seemed like a marriage made in heaven. The East Chimericans did the saving. The West Chimericans did the spending. [Cheap] Chinese imports kept down US inflation. Chinese savings kept down US interest rates. Chinese labour kept down US wage costs. As a result, it was remarkably cheap to borrow money and remarkably profitable to run a corporation. Thanks to Chimerica, global real interest rates…sank by more than a third below their average over the past fifteen years. Thanks to Chimerica, US corporate profits in 2006 rose by the same proportion above their average share of GDP….
The more China was willing to lend to the United States, the more Americans were willing to borrow. Chimerica, in other words, is the underlying cause of the surge in bank lending, bond issuance and new derivative contracts that Planet Finance witnessed after 2000. It was the underlying cause of the hedge fund population explosion. [It] was the underlying reason why the US mortgage market was so awash with cash in 2006 that you could get a 100 per cent mortgage with no income, no job or assets.
In the long sweep of history, the failures of money seem trivial in comparison with its triumphs, mere incidents on the road of financial innovation that leads to universal prosperity. Yet the failures have been extremely damaging to the generations that experienced them. The famous criticism made by John Maynard Keynes about the economics of his day can be applied to Ferguson’s history:
In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.7
Ferguson, of course, is aware of the storms—in fact he writes brilliantly about them—but he never doubts that the journey has been worth it. The “ascent” of which he writes owes more to Reagan-Thatcher triumphalism than to the more sober assessments of the performance of markets currently in vogue. It also leaves out an important part of the drama of finance—the constant struggle between financial innovation and government attempts to protect populations from financial rapacity.
It is not till he comes to his “Afterword,” interestingly, if ambiguously, entitled “The Descent of Money,” that Ferguson seriously considers the question of why the “ascent” of money he celebrates is linked to extreme financial instability. Here he pays brief homage to the distinction made by the economist Frank Knight (and also Keynes) between “risk” and “uncertainty”—with risk referring to a situation in which the probabilities of different random outcomes can be determined, as in roulette, whereas uncertainty pertains when no such probabilities are possible, such as the prospect of a future war. And he concedes that Keynes may have been “thinking along the right lines” when he talked of investors falling back on “conventions” to disguise from themselves the fact that they do not know what the future will bring—the main convention being to behave like everyone else is behaving.
But he fails to follow up these crucial insights. The distinction between “uncertainty” and “risk” is essential, in my view, to a proper understanding not only of the present crisis but of the whole “roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, bubbles and busts, manias and panics, shocks and crashes” that have punctuated economic history. The point is that the future cannot be decomposed into measurable risk, however much risk is spread across intermediary instruments. The illusion that it can be blinds investors to the ever-present possibility that the world may change in ways which set all their calculations at nought. The credit mountain was built on the belief that house prices would always go up; when they started to fall the balloon was pricked.
Ferguson realizes that mainstream economics is flawed, but then veers away to what I think is the dead end of “behavioral economics” and false analogies between financial evolution and Darwinian natural selection. Behavioral economics claims that we are “wired” to behave “irrationally”; theories purporting to derive from Darwinism claim that finance follows the law of the “survival of the fittest,” whereby firms fitted to their environment flourish and weaker ones go to the wall—a process that inevitably involves “creative destruction.” These attempts to explain the rise of money in terms of natural processes strike me as being both morally and philosophically naive.
Ferguson’s mistake, I suggest, comes from an incomplete appreciation of the role of money. Evidently money is more than just a facilitator of trades. It is a way of coping with changing views about an uncertain future. Why, Keynes asked, should any rational person wish to “hold money” rather than spend it? Precisely because it is a way of postponing spending when confidence is low and the “conventions” promising a secure future have broken down. Keynes writes:
The desire to hold money as a store of wealth is a barometer of the degree of our distrust of our own calculations and conventions concerning the future…. It operates, so to speak, at a deeper level of our motivation. It takes charge at the moments when the higher, more precarious conventions have weakened. The possession of actual money lulls our disquietude; and the premium which we require to make us part with money is the measure of the degree of our disquietude.8
Even a (modestly) depreciating currency may at moments of high uncertainty seem more “secure” (carry a higher premium) than any other asset. We are seeing the truth of this today. The failure to take account of this aspect of money is the missing dimension from an otherwise splendid book.
A final reflection on Ferguson as a historian. He is overimpressed by economics. Many historians feel that history is in some way inferior to the more exact sciences; the thought that he can “do” economics gives the historian an expanding sense of mastery. I know the feeling, because I’ve lived through it myself. Economics, especially in its mathematicized form, purveys a peculiar vision of society. Society to the mathematicians is a market imperfection. Among other imperfections, the idea is that allocation of resources is not as efficient and information for making choices is not as complete as they should be.
This delusive, but powerful, idea suggests that behind the imperfection lies perfection, a world in which the future will be perfectly known and therefore hold no surprises. Mathematics is the inheritor of the platonic ideal; and mathematically driven financial innovation is its handmaiden. At one time philosophers projected their utopias, and the early economists followed suit. Keynes was perhaps the last one who indulged in utopia building. In his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (1930), he looked forward to a time when the economic problem was solved and an age of abundance and leisure had arrived in which people would cultivate the arts of life.9
Instead, Keynes’s grandchildren face a rerun of the Great Depression, and President-elect Obama promises a new New Deal. On December 6, he pledged to create an estimated 2.5 million jobs in the first two years of his administration by large-scale investments in infrastructure projects, including bridges, mass transit, and electrical grids. Estimates of the costs by members of Congress range from $400 to $700 billion.
Having taken on $7.8 trillion in financial obligations over the last year—roughly half the size of the entire American economy—the US government is now represented in some form on the boards of most major American companies. Obama has promised to help those facing foreclosure on their mortgages and those hit by the relocation of jobs overseas. He has vowed to curb the excesses enjoyed by those at the pinnacle of deregulated credit. While not addressing the fundamental direction of economic theory, ad hoc policies such as these may help to ensure that the ascent of money does not lead to the descent of man.
—December 17, 2008
January 15, 2009
The two-hour documentary The Ascent of Money airs on PBS on January 13, 2009. ↩
Charles R. Morris, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (PublicAffairs, 2008), p. xii. ↩
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). ↩
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](/articles/archives/1999/dec/16/family-values/) by Robert Skidelsky, December 16, 1999. ↩
See Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (Norton, 2007), pp. 236–237; [reviewed in these pages](/articles/archives/2007/nov/22/the-partisan/) by Michael Tomasky, November 22, 2007. ↩
In Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, 2000). ↩
John Maynard Keynes, “A Tract on Monetary Reform” (1923), in Collected Writings (Macmillan/St. Martin’s/Royal Economic Society, 1971), Vol. 4, p. 65. ↩
Keynes, “General Theory of Unemployment” (February 1937), in Collected Writings, Vol. 14, p. 116. ↩
Keynes, Collected Writings, Vol. 9, p. 321. ↩