Economic historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; The Ascent of Money, 2008, etc.) turns to the last of the high financiers of old, before the hedge-funders of Wall Street took over the world.
Siegmund Warburg (1902–1982), writes the author, was on the face “no more or less than a very successful London banker.” Yet he was much more than that. Having chronicled the Rothschilds in a wide-ranging set of books, Ferguson finds Warburg a kindred figure as a German Jew who immigrated to England and built a fortune “with a combination of intelligence and industry,” building a powerful merchant bank from the ground up and using it to reshape the financial practices of the time. Like the Rothschilds, too, Warburg used his fortune to expand into other arenas, acquired considerable political influence and became a prominent philanthropist, funding many good-works organizations in Great Britain and Israel. Warburg was an enthusiastic citizen of both nations, but also, unlike many of his generation, was a “committed Atlanticist” who welcomed the integration of the European and North American economies, spending as much of his time in New York City as in the great financial capitals of Europe. Apart from that, Warburg was a patron of the arts and culture, a bibliophile and a scholar who remarked that had necessity not pushed him into the business of making a living, he would have happily lived out his days as a poor intellectual—though it certainly helped that his family had been in the banking business since the Napoleonic Wars. For all his success in the world of haute banque, however, Warburg enjoyed a type of career that would be replaced by a different kind of banking in the go-go days of deregulation and speculation. In the end, writes Ferguson, the house he built was sold for pence on the pound.
And with that—and herein lies the takeaway of this valuable book—every ounce of integrity seemed to disappear from the world of high finance. Readable, accessible and not a little nostalgic.