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Originally published Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'High Financier': Niall Ferguson on the banker who helped make London a capital of finance

A review of Niall Ferguson's "High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg," the biography of the man who helped make London one of the financial capitals of the world.

Special to The Seattle Times

'High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg'

by Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press, 521 pp, $35

The decline of Britain in the 20th century did not happen in the arena of finance. London is the world leader in the multibillion-dollar market for Eurobonds — debt instruments payable in offshore currencies. For that, British historian Niall Ferguson credits merchant banker Siegmund Warburg.

In his new biography of Warburg, "High Financier," Ferguson says Warburg, "more than any other, saved the City," meaning he saved London as a capital of finance, even as it was declining as the capital of an empire.

Siegmund Warburg, 1902-1982, was of a German Jewish family. He was reared by his strict but secular mother, and came to see business, Ferguson writes, as a "almost a religious calling."

Years later, when Warburg interviewed potential recruits for his London banking house, he would ask what they were reading.

"If the answer was Balzac, Dickens, Elliot, Tolstoy or Trollope," Ferguson writes, or especially Thomas Mann, "the candidate was almost certain to be employed."

Warburg's first estimation of Americans, when he worked in New York in the 1920s, was that they were "boring, vacuous in both spiritual and human terms, and suffocating in money."

Later he wrote that Americans all thought alike and "change their views according to the movements of the Stock Exchange." He had a special distaste for graduates of Harvard Business School.

Warburg wore the best suits and ate the best food. But he never had a yacht or a country house. He despised show-offs and he died with an estate of 2 million pounds, puny by today's standards.

He was not motivated mainly by money. As a youth in Germany, he had wanted a career in politics, with leanings to the center-left.

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The rise of the Nazis cut short Warburg's political ambitions, and his commercial ones: The family bank in Hamburg was "Aryanized."

He moved to London, and at war's end founded S.G. Warburg & Co., the platform for his career as a merchant banker.

Siegmund Warburg was an adviser, a big-picture man paid by leaders of industry to guide them in a wider world. In the mid-1950s, he was retained by Reynolds Metals in its takeover of British Aluminium — the first hostile takeover in Britain since the war.

In 1963 he created the first Eurobond. By the 1960s he was an informal adviser to Labour Party leader Harold Wilson.

Of all this, Ferguson has done a professional job. The weakness in his book is its subject: Warburg's life work was not the stuff of a riveting narrative.

He did not climb mountains, plan battles or solve crimes. He was neither outwardly colorful nor secretly twisted. He advised corporate executives, and he was good at it. But even his battle over British Aluminium lacked the fireworks of more recent takeovers in the United States.

For a historian like Ferguson, a biography of a banker is also an excuse to tell the financial history of his subject's time.

But when Warburg was at the top of his influence, from 1955 to 1975, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Warburg's political pal, Wilson, was an economic failure as prime minister.

All this makes "High Financier" an account in which the interesting parts are not the important parts and are not strong enough to sustain a narrative of more than 400 pages.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times

editorial writer.

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