Friday, December 10, 2010

Review of The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow

Much of The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow revolves around the famous "corner" - 23 Wall Street - which was, for the longest time, the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co.

I was surprised to find out that JP Morgan no longer owns 23 Wall Street - it was sold to Africa Israel Investments (an Israeli company owned by diamond magnate Lev Leviev) in 2003. The building's limestone still bears the scars of the bomb that exploded outside in 1920, killing 38 people including at least one JP Morgan employee [pdf].

There were a number of occasions in the book where Chernow's obnoxious politics (statist is probably an accurate description) caused me to make an exasperated margin note. Chernow has a new book out about George Washington, so your observation about "great men" seems correct, although that is natural for a biographer.

To read Chernow's account, you would assume the Morgans were pretty conspicuously absent from the exciting new industries being formed circa 1900. Yet, Morgan was backing Thomas Edison and even invested in a Tesla experiment.

I think Chernow glosses over this because the Morgans were generally more interested in either making a dignified, white-shoe vig off of bonds issued by a stuffy, established company or cloak-and-dagger lending to deadbeat sovereigns (England, Germany, Latin American countries, etc).

The cloak-and-dagger part was because these sovereign loans went bad with alarming frequency, necessitating corrupt machinations in order to get paid. [It's hard to even tell to what extent Morgan was exposed to these bad loans. Did Morgan just make a quick vig on these too before pawning them off on retail rubes? Chernow doesn't think to write about those aspects of the transactions.]

I think a much more interesting man than either of the Morgans is Andrew Mellon. Andrew Mellon was our type of economist:

"liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people."
Mellon was smarter, richer, and of better character than the Morgans. And, by the way, Mellon built the National Gallery of Art even as he was being harassed by the Roosevelt administration on false income tax charges. 

Mellon and the Morgans are both examples of how quickly most men grow tired of compounding wealth, and of what little imagination most rich men have at finding a use for vast wealth.

Planes and boats are classic rich man's toys and credit bubble assets, because you can get them as big (and expensive) as your heart desires, plus there is a long lead time to build them, making the price swings extra-volatile. The pinnacle, though, is works of art, because the supply has zero elasticity so the prices just get bid up to infinity during a bubble. Check out this article (

Overall, I give this a 3/5.

See also:
23 Wall Street
Followup on 23 Wall Street

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