July 8th, 2009
About the Film

Niall Ferguson at NYSE

As the world continues to struggle to find its footing amid rising unemployment, constricted credit and crumbling banks and industries — raising questions about how the economic system collapsed — PBS presents Niall Ferguson’s ASCENT OF MONEY. This groundbreaking four-part series examines the creation of the economic system by taking viewers on a global trek through the history of money. (An abbreviated version of the documentary, which focused on the current economic crisis at the advent of the Obama administration, aired in January; it can be streamed in full on the Website.) The four-hour version delves deeper into how the complex system of global finance evolved over the centuries, how money has shaped the course of human affairs and how the mechanics of this economic system work to create seemingly unlimited wealth — or catastrophic loss.

ASCENT OF MONEY is based on Ferguson’s best-selling book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, which predicted the current economic crisis and was released within weeks of the meltdown of sub-prime loans.

Said Ferguson, “In the midst of a major economic depression, it is often hard to appreciate the historical precedents and truly understand that while a situation may look dire, our system of finance, banking and trade has allowed for unprecedented progress. I’m hopeful the film will allow viewers to better understand the on-going evolution of our financial system and how our economy remains extraordinarily viable even as we are grappling with a crisis of historic proportions.”

For millions of people, the recession has generated a thirst for knowledge about how our global economic system really works, especially when so many financial experts seem to be equally baffled. In ASCENT OF MONEY, economist, author and historian Ferguson offers insight into these questions by taking viewers step-by-step through the milestones of the financial history that created this system, visiting the locations where key events took place and poring over actual ledgers and documents — such as the first publicly traded share of a company — that would change human history. Ferguson maintains that the history of money is indeed at the core of our human history, with economic strength determining political dominance, wars fought to create wealth and individual financial barons determining the fates of millions.

Among the places Ferguson visits are Bolivia, where Spain established vast gold and silver mines — still in operation — and enslaved the indigenous people to create so much currency for the Spanish crown that it eventually became worthless; Italy, where the Medici family transformed the sinful practice of usury into the banking system we know today and in the process became as powerful as monarchs; Paris, where Scotsman John Law created a Ponzi scheme tied to the Louisiana territory that brought France to its knees; London, where bonds trader Nathan Rothschild and his family nearly went bankrupt by helping to finance the British army’s war against Napoleon, then achieved enormous wealth through the buying and selling of war bonds; Scotland, where two ministers established the first life insurance fund, and New Orleans, where the shortcomings of their calculations would be demonstrated to tragic effect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; and New York, where Ferguson interviews financial wizard George Soros about the concept he introduced of short selling derivatives based on a prediction that they will lose value.

Through this history, viewers learn economic fundamentals that inform the meanings of sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps and an understanding how the Chinese economy has risen to dominate the world.

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