Review of a book about the history of money in America
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S BANKERS
Nomi Prins' 'All The Presidents' Bankers' is a riveting book that documents influential moments in history which defined the exorbitant world of money, power and control. Prins, a former employee on Wall Street, writes a thrilling expose' of the financial elites who have had the reins of this country in their hands since the beginning of the banking culture. She unearths the symbiotic relationship between the Presidents and their bankers, the powerplay and how all of this has almost threatened democracy on several occasions.
Prins' main argument is that the financial elite who control the economy of the country have more power than the lawmakers themselves. She says that the banker's bets and actions crushed the economy before, and they are powerful enough to do it again (Prins 422). She also writes that US banks retain more influence over the global capital than any other government and their alliance with the presidency has empowered America, often at the expense of the rest of the world. (Prins 423).
I do agree with Prins' main argument. The book does a great job of convincing its readers that the actual power has always lied with the financial elite of the country. They set prices, interest rates for loans and mortgages and ride the stock markets. They basically control the economic and commercial aspect of the life of every American with a bank account. They have also been controlling the world economy since before the US Dollar was the reserve currency held by the foreign central banks. Prins paints a very accurate and real picture of how things went down right from the dawn of the world of finance in the early 1900s to its effect and power in the 2000s. Prins provides about 400 pages of incidents, data and stories that have directed the fate of banking and money over the course of the century. I have compiled a few of the incidents that made me agree with her.
Prins starts off by talking about the 2 biggest names of the world of money in the early 1900s- JP Morgan and JD Rockefeller. In the late 1890s, JP Morgan had more money and gold than the US treasury department. In 1901, Morgan controlled about 70% of the steel industry and at least one fifth of the companies trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Morgan's formidable foe was JD Rockefeller- a billionaire who made about $45 million dollars' worth of profits in 1899. Both the industry barons had fast growing money and were looking for places to invest their wealth. Now on one side was the 'Money Trust' that consisted of the Rockefeller family, Union Pacific (one of the largest railroad companies of the time), Standard Oil and the Wall Street firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company under Schiff. On the other side was the group of the elite investment bankers- JP Morgan, James Hill and George Baker Sr. JP Morgan played his cards very wisely and asserted his position as the world's main global banker by sending money to the Bank of England in the 1890 and preventing the Barings banking house from shutting down. This elevated his position in American and he was considered a hero by the public when, in 1899, he lent $50 million dollars to the Treasury on egregious terms by soliciting $10 million dollars from his partner, Stillman without giving him any credit (Prins 7).
Prins also gives a great example of Morgan's control over politics. In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt won the election by positioning himself against the 'tyranny of wealth' and garnering the support of the working class. To assert his power as the dominant force, Roosevelt went against the tyrant himself- JP Morgan and directed the Justice Department to follow an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company (one of the biggest railroad trusts in America, co-owned by JP Morgan). But during Roosevelt's second term as President, he asked for Morgan's help to recover from an economic catastrophe and ended up doing the latter's bidding. This happened again during the Panic of 1907 when Roosevelt approved side deals for Morgan in exchange for Morgan's money to save the country from a 'frightful and nationwide calamity' (Prins 8).
A change in the scene of banking took place during Kennedy's presidency. The markets were flooded by young, enthusiastic bankers with a desire for money and little to no experience. Their greed further de-humanized the banking culture and the mantra of 'America first' was replaced by 'Go where the money is' (Prins 230). Like depicted in Martin Scorsese's Wolf Of Wall Street, the Mad Men kind of trading left the stock market beaming with new investors. Kennedy's attempt to limit foreign tax benefits on US subsidiaries did not go down well with this new wave of bankers. But Kennedy still had the support of David Rockefeller who ran the world's most politically powerful bank. This combination of financial and political supremacy worked very well for both the parties involved. An especially lucrative time for David Rockefeller was when Kennedy announced the 'Alliance for Progress' with Latin America. (Prins 236). Rockefeller used Chase Bank to purchase pieces of local land and national banks. He also set up meeting with the local elites to share profits from the countries' resources. Banco Chase Manhattan, a small subsidiary, became one of Brazil's leading foreign banks. Rockefeller, with Kennedy's political reach right beside him, turned into an international power by travelling the world and growing his business (Prins 238)
Another selling point of this book is its mention of the Big 6- JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank Of America, Wells Fargo (Prins 394). Bankers, especially those of the Big 6, have been known to manipulate documents and their own clients in the name of financial prowess. Post the Glass Steagall period, bankers tried to increase their investments by forging documents. Wall street bankers faked their clients' true debt level and Goldman Sachs hid debt for Greece to meet the accession criteria for EU. One of the biggest examples of financial manipulation is the Enron fiasco. The Enron Company, with the help of bankers, compiled a ton of fake paperwork to create off- shore companies to hide losses and escape taxes. This eventually piled on a lot of debt. Post 9/11, Bush persuaded executives to increase their share prices to show national strength. Enron then came clean about a $681 million loss in their third quarter and after Ken Lay requested big bankers to lend Enron money, it announced that the company had consumed $3.3 billion credit facility. After a lot of persuasion by JP Morgan and Citigroup, Dynegy agreed to purchase Enron for $8 billion but backed out in the end. Enron finally filed for bankruptcy on December 2, 2001. Being one of its biggest creditors, Citibank lost $3 billion and Chase lost $2 billion dollars (Prins 397). A few months later, WorldCom's $3.7 billion dollar embezzlement story saw the light of day (Prins 399). These were two of the biggest financial scandals in the history of the country that were orchestrated by the bankers and their greed for money.
Although I agree with the narrative of the book, I believed that some parts of this book are overly dramatized. For example, she ends the book with the statement, "Either we break their alliance, or they will break us". In spite of being a powerful closing line, it sounds like the words of a conspiracy theorist.
Prins definitely knows where she stands with this book and gives enough examples to persuade her readers to agree with her. But she does not provide opposing arguments and thus does not give her readers an opportunity to make their own decision and realize whether they agree with her or not.
Apart from that, this is a very well written book. Also, as a non-American, reading this book has definitely enhanced my knowledge of America's socio-political and economic history and has spiked my interest in learning more. I would definitely recommend this book to those who are interested in money- its history, revolution and the power that comes with it. Despite being extremely detailed and long, this book is coherent enough for a general reader and has a narrative that is easy to follow.
The book achieves its goal of putting forth Prins' ideas and providing enough data to verify her main argument. It is very well scripted, and its chronological order helps the readers understand the timeline of events while the detailed writing transports them to when these events transpired. This book is a compilation of effective, moving and fascinating historic tales which makes it a thrilling page-turner.