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Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Hardcover)


Review
“Ahamed cannot have foreseen how timely his book would be. Unlike most works on the origins of the Great Depression, Lords of Finance is highly readable – enlivened by vivid biographical detail but soundly based on the literature. That it should appear now, as history threatens to repeat itself, compounds its appeal.”
— Niall Ferguson, Financial Times

“Erudite, entertaining macroeconomic history of the lead-up to the Great Depression as seen through the careers of the West’s principal bankers…Spellbinding, insightful and, perhaps most important, timely.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Product Description
With penetrating insights for today, this vital history of the world economic collapse of the late 1920s offers unforgettable portraits of the four men whose personal and professional actions as heads of their respective central banks changed the course of the twentieth century

It is commonly believed that the Great Depression that began in 1929 resulted from a confluence of events beyond any one person’s or government’s control. In fact, as Liaquat Ahamed reveals, it was the decisions taken by a small number of central bankers that were the primary cause of the economic meltdown, the effects of which set the stage for World War II and reverberated for decades.

In Lords of Finance, we meet the neurotic and enigmatic Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, the xenophobic and suspicious Émile Moreau of the Banque de France, the arrogant yet brilliant Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, whose façade of energy and drive masked a deeply wounded and overburdened man. After the First World War, these central bankers attempted to reconstruct the world of international finance. Despite their differences, they were united by a common fear—that the greatest threat to capitalism was inflation— and by a common vision that the solution was to turn back the clock and return the world to the gold standard.

For a brief period in the mid-1920s they appeared to have succeeded. The world’s currencies were stabilized and capital began flowing freely across the globe. But beneath the veneer of boom-town prosperity, cracks started to appear in the financial system. The gold standard that all had believed would provide an umbrella of stability proved to be a straitjacket, and the world economy began that terrible downward spiral known as the Great Depression.

As yet another period of economic turmoil makes headlines today, the Great Depression and the year 1929 remain the benchmark for true financial mayhem. Offering a new understanding of the global nature of financial crises, Lords of Finance is a potent reminder of the enormous impact that the decisions of central bankers can have, of their fallibility, and of the terrible human consequences that can result when they are wrong.

The Four Bankers of Apocalypse, January 25, 2009
By Izaak VanGaalen (San Francisco, CA USA)


Liaquat Ahamed, a former World Bank economist and investment fund manager, began research on this book long before the current financial crisis, having no idea of the relevance it would have upon its publication. It is a history of the financial and economic turmoil that began in 1914 and didn't really end until after World War II. He traces the development of this crisis through the lives and actions of four central bankers: Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve of New York, Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Emile Morceau of the Banque de France, and Hjalmer Schacht of the Reichsbank of Germany. The liquidity crisis of 1914 has suddenly become a subject of interest as it bears relevance to today's problems.

Ahamed's central thesis is that the critical decisions made by these four bankers not only caused the Great Depression but also created the conditions for World War II. The most fateful event of all was the decision to adhere to the gold standard. In retrospect, tying the amount of currency a country has in circulation to the amount of gold it has in its vaults appears arbitrary and nonsensical. However, it seemed like a good idea at the time, it provided a universal standard against which countries could stablize their currencies. Unfortunately it became a straight jacket which gave them little room to maneuver.

When the big four bankers came into power in the mid-1920s, the use of the gold standard actually seemed to be working, currencies were stabalized and capital was once again flowing. The problem however was that there was not enough gold in existence to proide enough capital to finance world trade. According to Ahamed, this was the central flaw in the financial system that led to the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Of course, the chain of events was more complicated than that and Ahamed recognizes the complexity. Each of the four bankers and their respective countries were pursuing their own agendas as opposed to trying to save the system as a whole, the gold standard was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Ahamed has written an interesting history of what otherwise would be a fairly dull story. It makes one think about flaws in the system - like sub-prime mortgages, derivatives and the excessive use of credit - and how things could have been different if they had been recognized earlier.

Central Banks in the First 40 years of the 20th Century, February 7, 2009
By Donald Costello "dcnj1" (Bridgewater, NJ United States)


First, let me say that this is an extremely well written book. I was expecting to have to plow through the usual dreadful writing that finance and economics seems to generate. To my surprise I found a book that was crisp, clear, and interesting. Fun, in fact. Second, the author covers a period and a topic that is sadly neglected in most histories - the inter-war period, and especially the financial events that played a major role in the rise of Hitler and the origins of the Second World War.

The book is primarily the story of 4 Central Banks - those of the US, England, France, and Germany, and of the heads of those banks. The book actually covers a longer span than the inter-war period, it includes important information about the banks just prior to the First World War, their activities during the war, and extends into the Second World War. The lead-in is especially important, because it explains so much of what happened during the inter-war period.

The events are too complicated to review in detail, but the author explains them well and shows how the personalities of the Bankers as well as the politics of the times influenced events. Let us just say, mistakes were made.

My one quibble with the book is that the author is rather unsparing in his criticism of the bankers. Although this is somewhat justified, I ended up feeling sympathetic to at least the heads of the US Federal Reserve and the Governor of the Bank of England. Their primary fault was an inability to see beyond the conventional economic wisdom of the times. In point of fact, the only person who seemed to get it right during this time was Maynard Keynes. If we are to judge everyone against the standard of the most brilliant mind in their field, very very few of us are going to come out well.

The most important point the book makes is how factors other than purely economic issues play a role in making economic decisions, but how the consequences of those economic decisions then rebound onto the wider political history of the times. While the book deals with a different time and political landscape, the parallels to our own times are VERY frightening. The author does not emphasize the parallels, and the book was actually completed before many parallel events occurred. To my mind that just makes them more compelling.

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