A brilliant narrative of early capitalism's most famous scandal, a speculative frenzy that nearly bankrupted the British state during the hot summer of 1720 – and paradoxically led to the birth of modern finance.
The South Sea Company was formed to trade with Asian and Latin American countries. But it had almost no ships and did precious little trade. Instead it got into financial fraud on a massive scale, taking over the government's debt and promising to pay the state out of the money received from the shares it sold.
And how they sold. In the summer of 1720 the share price rocketed and everyone was making money. Until the carousel stopped, and thousands lost their shirts. Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope and others lost heavily.
Thomas Levenson's superb account of the South Sea Bubble is not just the story of a huge scam, but is also the story of the birth of modern financial capitalism: the idea that you can invest in future prosperity and that governments can borrow money to make things happen, like funding the rise of British naval and mercantile power. These dreamers and fraudsters may have bankrupted Britain, but they made the world rich.
Praise for Money For Nothing:
'A scholar who makes complicated and subtle matters not just accessible but fun. Utterly relevant to the 2008 financial crisis and 2020 pandemic' SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE
'Thoroughly researched and vibrantly written, Money For Nothing captures those heady, heartbreaking times, which still hold lessons for today' DAVID KAISER
'A gripping story of scientists and swindlers, all too pertinent to our modern world' JAMES GLEICK
'It's easy to look back and think of the South Sea bubblers, like the tulip-mad Dutch of the 1630s, as financially naive – until you remember how many people jumped in on various other more recent crazes (from Beanie Babies to Pets.com and Bitcoin). This is not a new tale, but Levenson tells it with a light touch' SPECTATOR
About the Author
Thomas Levenson is the author of Newton and the Counterfeiter, a bestselling book about Newton's time as Master of the Royal Mint. He published The Hunt for Vulcan with Head of Zeus in 2016, a book shortlisted for the Science Book Prize. He teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a frequent visitor to London.