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Lord of finance
A portrait of an unusual banker from a different era.
The last couple of years have not been good for the reputation of bankers. When their ludicrous bets on American mortgages went bad in 2007 and 2008, bringing the whole financial industry to the brink of disaster, they looked like fools;and their behaviour since has only cast them in an even worse light. Their uncanny knack for extracting gigantic profits from the current low interest rates, when the rest of the economy is struggling, raises the suspicion that there is something exploitative about what they do, a fear exacerbated by the startling bonuses they continue to pay themselves through good times and bad.
Perhaps most disturbing is that, in their public appearances, the men who run the big financial institutions in this country and wield such enormous power seem to display so shallow and unreflective a worldview.
Niall Ferguson's High Financier, the biography of the Anglo-German banker Sir Siegmund Warburg, takes us back to a different era - the 1950s and 60s - and a different conception of banking. Profits from trading were modest, and bankers made most of their money by giving advice to clients and helping businesses to raise capital. Bankers like Warburg thought of themselves as rather like family doctors, whose job it was to get to know their clients well, understand their problems and act in their best interest - a far cry from the ethos that dominates today's Wall Street.
Warburg was born in imperial Germany in 1902, into the poorer branch of the Warburg banking dynasty. His father, Georges, was the family underachiever, who for health reasons had moved away from the ancestral base in Hamburg to an estate in southern Germany. After his father lost much of his inheritance to the hyperinflation of the early 1920s, young Siegmund joined M M Warburg in the hope of eventually making enough money to enter politics. He discovered that he enjoyed business, though he found himself increasingly frustrated by Max's complacency and mismanagement.
While Warburg, like so many other wealthy German Jews, misjudged the threat posed by the rise of the National Socialists, once Hitler came to power he was quick to realise how dangerous the situation had become, and in 1934 he emigrated. Rather than join his extended family in New York, he chose to move to London, where he started a small investment firm.
Though he arrived in Britain with an impeccable banking pedigree, he was an outsider to the clubby world of the City of London, a foreigner, with hardly any capital of his own and Jewish to boot. By the later 1940s he had established himself as an expert in corporate finance, and by the late 1950s, S G Warburg & Company had vaulted into that inner sanctum of British merchant banking, the accepting houses (so called because their paper was accepted without question at the Bank of England ), a group that included such storied names as Rothschild and Lazard. Warburg solidified his reputation as a ruthless but canny deal maker when in the late 50s he shook up the hidebound City by starting the first hostile takeover bid in Britain.
It was during the 60s that Warburg reached the pinnacle of his influence. He was the first to recognise that the pool of dollars accumulating in European hands could be tapped directly by local borrowers, creating what became known as the Eurobond market and thus reviving London's historic position as a global financial centre. But as Britain's economic malaise became more acute and inflation took off in the 1970s, the capital base of S G Warburg & Company progressively eroded. When the London markets were deregulated and opened to foreign competition in the 1980s, the firm made a sequence of strategic missteps and, like everyone of the other British merchant banks, found itself too small to compete with the big foreign banks.
As Ferguson warns in his introduction, it is hard to write about bankers and financiers. For all their importance, what they do on a day-to-day basis is rarely good raw material for drama - except, of course, during crises like the one we have just lived through - and nothing dates faster or reads more dryly than financial coups of previous decades. Ferguson, the author of many books of financial history, largely overcomes these limitations by avoiding getting bogged down in the minutiae of deals that are now ancient history. Instead he keeps his eye on the big picture - the social, economic and political backdrop to Warburg's career.
Quoting extensively from Warburg's private papers, Ferguson is in his element as he takes us on a tour d'horizon of 20thcentury Europe - the turbulence of Germany in the interwar years;Britain after the war, saddled with the encumbrances of its imperial past;the creation of the European market in the 50s and 60s;and the collapse of Bretton Woods in the early 70s.
The man who emerges from High Financier is more interesting for who he was than for what he did. Ferguson draws a richly vivid portrait of this unusual banker, an intellectual who read the Latin and Greek classics in the original and preferred Nietzsche to newspapers, an ascetic who, according to a colleague, "despised moneymaking for its own sake", a fastidious man - almost to the point of selfcaricature - with a profoundly gloomy view of human history and a fundamentally tragic sensibility.
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