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08/31/2010

Book Review: High Financier


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High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund WarburgNiall Ferguson's biography of Siegmund Warburg, High Financier, combines the life of this successful banker with the history of the capital markets of his era. The Warburg family was based in Hamburg as one of Germany's major banking firms. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Siegmund Warburg came to London as an outsider, started over again, and became an important factor in the London banking world. He changed merchant banking there with the first hostile takeover in England—of British Aluminum. And, in a move that was unusual for that time, Warburg brought modern management into banking. An even greater impact came from his role in creating the Eurodollar and Eurobond markets. At that time in postwar England, London's survival as a major financial center was far from assured.

Warburg's vision went beyond London. He was an early globalization pioneer. His firm had a special focus on internal communication. He was connected by marriage to the New York investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co., which was second only to Morgan bank. His analysis of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. showed the problems and shortcomings that led its eventual sale. At the end of his career, he had a number of failures, especially in trying for international business connections. But failures can be as instructive for the reader as successes.

In today's world, Warburg can look very old fashioned. He was the ultimate cultured relationship banker, far removed from the business school grads in front of their computer screens, on their PDAs. But the recent financial crisis may have renewed the importance of relationship banking. For financial professionals, it is always rewarding to study those who have gone before us.

–Bill Hayes

 

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