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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Book review: The Ascent of Money

Last autumn on UK television, Channel 4 presented a fantastic six-part series related to Niall Ferguson’s book, The Ascent of Money. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to be asked by The Actuary to review the book. Like many people, I am a procrastinator when it comes to reading non-fiction books and have a never-ending list of “must reads” — and this one was on it.

It looks bulky, at 442 pages long — and in hardback to boot — although it feels the same weight as many paperbacks. What initially frightens as potentially a heavy read, in all senses of the word, proves to be, for me at least, a light holiday read which I highly recommend. It is as fascinating as any Harry Potter novel, and many times I wondered that truth can be stranger than fiction in its consequences. As Ferguson states: “the story I have told is authentically evolutionary”.

From the subtitle, A Financial History of the World, as an actuary, I had not expected to learn much. I don’t think I was proven wrong in that respect, but it has provided a fresh perspective and depth to my knowledge, as well as meshing together ideas and events which were previously disconnected in my mind. Ferguson has truly written a book that “explains everything we need to know about finance and history”. He has been described by The Times as “the most brilliant historian of his generation”. If this book is representative of his work, then I concur.

The resounding message of the book is the importance of money as a motivating factor in every major war, crisis or progress in history. Ferguson is optimistic about the future and states: “though the line of financial history has a saw-tooth quality, its trajectory is unquestionably upward”. This should be essential reading for any actuarial student without a background in economics and recommended reading for others.

Dr Geraldine Kaye is managing director of GAAPS Actuarial