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The Ascent of Money

A Financial History of the World

By Niall Ferguson
18-minute read
Audio available
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

The Ascent of Money is an explanation of how different historical events led to the development of the current financial system.

It aims to show how, despite its proneness to crises and inequality, the financial system and money itself are drivers of human history and progress.

  • Anyone who wants to understand the workings of the financial system
  • People who want to understand why financial crises happen
  • Anyone who wants to know why money is so powerful

Niall Ferguson is one of Britain’s most renowned historians. He has worked for numerous institutions in Britain and the USA, with a focus primarily on international and economic history.

In addition to his academic career, he is also known as a commentator and writer for numerous newspapers and magazines. He has written and presented various television documentary series, including a television adaptation of the Ascent of Money.

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The Ascent of Money

A Financial History of the World

By Niall Ferguson
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
Synopsis

The Ascent of Money is an explanation of how different historical events led to the development of the current financial system.

It aims to show how, despite its proneness to crises and inequality, the financial system and money itself are drivers of human history and progress.

Key idea 1 of 12

The financial system is evolutionary in nature.

Charles Darwin discovered that life evolved through a process known as natural selection. Life forms most suited to their environments prospered, whilst those less successful died out.

In most environments there are only enough resources to support a limited amount of life. The fight for these resources is vicious, as failure will often result in extinction.

The life forms which were most prosperous were able to spread their genes through reproduction and thus multiply in number, eventually taking the place of the declining species.

The process is continuous; species are always dying out and being replaced by new species. Usually these changes are localized to small environments, but sometimes events happen that cause extinctions on a large scale.

For example, 64 million years ago a meteor wiped out almost all life on earth, including most dinosaurs. In situations like this, new species will grow in the spaces left by the extinct ones, just as mammals took the place of dinosaurs after the meteor disaster.

The financial system evolves in a similar way, through market selection: the financial equivalent of natural selection. The financial world is constantly changing through new techniques and innovations in the same way the natural world constantly evolves. The firms that adapt to these new situations grow and prosper and are imitated by others. This is the financial equivalent of gene reproduction. 

On the other hand, firms that cling to outdated practices and fail to produce sufficient returns are doomed to extinction.

Some events, like the financial collapses of 1929 and 2008, lead to a mass extinction of financial firms and practices. In situations like this, space is created for new types of financial firms and practices to spring up.  

The financial system is evolutionary in nature.

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