Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Financial Translator’s Bookshelf: High Financier, by Niall Ferguson

High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg, by Niall Ferguson

Will “Fabulous Fab” read this and have a Damascene conversion? Fat chance

I feel an acute ambivalence toward Niall Ferguson’s work: if his name is on the byline of a column in the FT or the Wall Street Journal, I will gladly read it through as he brings the “longue durée” perspective of history to the minutiae of current economic events. However, when it comes to his scholarly work, I have to will myself to read through to the end. You sometimes feel as if you were listening to him distractedly hurrying through a graduate seminar as he daydreams about his next appointment with Henry Kissinger.
In this biography of the unofficial founder of the postwar City of London and the creator of the Eurobond market, Ferguson has a clearly didactic ambition: to remind “a new generation of bankers of Siegmund Warburg’s haute banque ideal — financial service based on the primacy of the client relationship rather than the speculative transaction.” This is a lofty, laudable, conscientious, and earnest (albeit slightly self-righteous) motivation. And he proceeds to do exactly that, thanks to unprecedented access to Warburg’s personal papers, in a methodical, conscientious, scrupulous and at times (cringingly) obsequious way (the caption to one picture reads: “Siegmund as a boy: already happiest with book in hand”). However, he discharges his duty in such a bloodless fashion that you sometimes wonder if he was even more tortured by ennui than his reader. Is there any possibility that, as Ferguson intends, a purveyor of synthetic squared CDOs will peruse all of its pages and feel a tinge of shame or that a “Fabulous Fab” will have a Damascene conversion while traipsing through this grey tome? Fat chance.

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