The Ascent of Money

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The Ascent of Money
The Ascent of Money.jpg
AuthorNiall Ferguson
CountryUnited States
SubjectsHistory of money, credit, banking
PublisherThe Penguin Press HC
Publication date
13 November 2008
Media typePrint
332.09 22
LC ClassHG171 .F47 2008

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World is a 2008 book by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson,[1] and an adapted television documentary for Channel 4 (UK) and PBS (US),[2] which in 2009 won an International Emmy Award. It examines the long history of money, credit, and banking.


The book deals with the rise of money as a trade form, and tracks its progression, development, and effects on society into the 21st Century.


The book was adapted into a six-part television documentary with the new full title Ascent of Money: Boom and Bust for Channel 4 in the United Kingdom.[2] It also aired on TVB Pearl in Hong Kong and ABC1 in Australia.[3] In the United States, an edited two-hour version was aired in January 2009 by PBS.

A newer, reorganized four-hour version with the original full title The Ascent of Money: The Financial History of the World was aired in July 2009 by PBS. Both versions can still be viewed online at the link below.

Episodes - Original Version[edit]

Ep. 1: Dreams of avarice[edit]

From Shylock's pound of flesh to the loan sharks of Glasgow, from the "promises to pay" on Babylonian clay tablets to the Medici banking system. Professor Ferguson explains the origins of credit and debt and why credit networks are indispensable to any civilization.[2]

Ep. 2: Human bondage[edit]

How did finance become the realm of the masters of the universe? Through the rise of the bond market in Renaissance Italy. With the advent of bonds, war finance was transformed and spread to north-west Europe and across the Atlantic. It was the bond market that made the Rothschilds the richest and most powerful family of the 19th century.

Ep. 3: Blowing bubbles[edit]

Why do stock markets produce bubbles and busts? Professor Ferguson goes back to the origins of the joint stock company in Amsterdam and Paris. He draws telling parallels between the current stock market crash and the 18th century Mississippi Bubble of Scottish financier John Law and the 2001 Enron bankruptcy. He shows why humans have a herd instinct when it comes to investment, and why no one can accurately predict when the bulls might stampede.

Ep. 4: Risky business[edit]

Life is a risky business – which is why people take out insurance. But faced with an unexpected disaster, the state has to step in. Professor Ferguson travels to post-Katrina New Orleans to ask why the free market can't provide some of the adequate protection against catastrophe. His quest for an answer takes him to the origins of modern insurance in the early 19th century and to the birth of the welfare state in post-war Japan.

Ep. 5: Safe as houses[edit]

It sounded so simple: give state-owned assets to the people. After all, what better foundation for a property-owning democracy than a campaign of privatisation encompassing housing? An economic theory says that markets can't function without mortgages, because it's only by borrowing against their assets that entrepreneurs can get their businesses off the ground. But what if mortgages are bundled together and sold off to the highest bidder?

Ep. 6: Chimerica[edit]

Niall Ferguson investigates the globalisation of the Western economy and the uncertain balance between the important component countries of China and the US. In examining the last time globalisation took hold – before World War One, he finds a notable reversal, namely that today's money is pouring into the English-speaking economies from the developing world, rather than out.

Episodes - Four-Hour Version[edit]

  • Episode 1: From Bullion to Bubbles
  • Episode 2: Bonds of War
  • Episode 3: Risky Business
  • Episode 4: Planet Finance


Michael Hirsh of The New York Times glowingly mentions that "Ferguson takes us on an often enlightening and enjoyable spelunking tour through the underside of great events, a lesson in how the most successful great powers have always been underpinned by smart money".[4] The Guardian's book review also lavishes praise on Ferguson's efforts by mentioning that he mirrors Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973) by positioning financial markets as 'the mirror of mankind', magnifying back to us our values, weaknesses and psychoses". However, it criticizes Ferguson's lack of "intellectual history of capital": "George Soros gets more attention than Adam Smith and at a time when we are facing what Eric Hobsbawm has called 'the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s', with Das Kapital a bestseller in Germany, is it credible to devote more space to Goldman Sachs's Jim O'Neill than the works of Karl Marx?" The review concludes that "[i]nstead of an inquiring history, what we are left with is a reverential panorama of neoliberal capitalism. Above all, there is little investigation of the losers in the zero-sum game of money's ascent."[5] The Economist considers the book "rushed" and "uneven" but compliments the timing of the book's release at the height of the financial crisis by saying that "The world needs a book that puts today's crisis into context. It is too late now to warn investors about expensive houses and financiers about cheap credit. But perhaps the past can help make sense of the wreckage of banks, brokers and hedge funds that litters the markets. Looking back may help suggest what to do next. And when the crisis is over and it is time for the great reckoning, the lessons of history should inform the arguments about what must change".[6]


  1. ^ Ferguson, Niall (2008-11-13). The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. The Penguin Press HC. ISBN 978-1-59420-192-9.
  2. ^ a b c "The Ascent of Money". PBS.
  3. ^ "ABC1 Programming Airdate: The Ascent Of Money (episode one)". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2010-09-14.
  4. ^ Hirsh, Michael (2008-12-28). "Follow the Money". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  5. ^ Hunt, Tristram. "Review: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  6. ^ "A financial history of the world". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2015-09-07.


External links[edit]