Financial History Issue 125 (Spring 2018) - Page 42

BOOK REVIEW  BY JAMES P. PROUT Reading the Market: Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America By Peter Knight Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017 336 pp. with notes and index $24.95 Paperback It is not unusual today to have finance or banking as the centerpiece of a popular television series, movie, play or novel. The Big Short had Margot Robbie in a bathtub trying to explain mortgage securitization. Billions is in its third year, and by mixing bonds with bondage, it looks to be good for another couple of seasons. Financial markets are just too rich a source of char- acters and plot lines to be far from drama or comedy. There are many who may think that the depiction of financial markets is a pretty straightforward proposition. Finan- cial markets gather capital and distribute it. Individuals and institutions — some malevolent, some not — invest and specu- late on the value of financial assets at a given moment. Money is made and money is lost. Like any other human endeavor, some parts of this process are easier to understand than others. For others, depictions of financial mar- kets express themes that are anything but straightforward or simple. Good versus evil, success versus failure, beauty versus baseness; these just scratch the service. Finance-themed cartoons, organizational charts, gossip columns and travel literature carry with them deep seeded psychologi- cal and societal messages that transcend easy characterization. That is the basic premise of Professor Peter Knight’s book, Reading the Market: Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America. Knight starts his analysis by looking at the humble daily stock market reports that began to occupy a more prominent place in periodicals at the turn of the century. Citing issues of the New York Herald and Harper’s magazine and other publications, he notes they adopted a style of market reporting that sought to alter the public’s perception of the markets and “transform ordinary Americans into vicarious specta- tors of finance.” As “the market” became more broadly followed, Knight asserts, the ticker tape machine became more than a collection of gears and spools. Instead, the clack- ing beneath the glass dome personified both the immediacy and abstraction of trading floor activity. “Far from being a mere unfeeling machine, however,” he writes, “it is presented in the rhetoric of technologically infused spiritualism as a 40    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Spring 2018  | www.MoAF.org sensitive medium, picking up, in advance, the movements of human history that elude conscious apprehension.” Whew, that’s a lot from a paper tape. Using the same approach, the book turns next to other popular pictures of the market at the time. These include car- toons, travel books and Babson’s charts of the ups and downs of business activ- ity. These, according to the professor, “worked not through the genre of realism, but instead were, in an important sense, self-referential artifacts, akin to forms of modernist art that were beginning to emerge at the same time.” The book moves to its ending with a dis- cussion of how confidence games and con- spiracy theories of the era were portrayed. Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man is discussed, as are the works of William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Walter Lippmann and the Pujo Commission. No study of this sort would be complete with- out J.P. Morgan, who makes an obliga- tory appearance. Knight extracts messages from each, including the industrialization of fraud, the disruption of localized trust and “the actual mutual back-scratching of a clubbable coterie.” Professor Knight has highlighted some interesting connections between popu- lar depictions of financial markets in the Gilded Age. He certainly sees unifying themes among them, however unconnected and random his selections may be.  James P. Prout is a lawyer with 30+ years of capital market experience. He now is a consultant to some of the world’s big- gest corporations. He can be reached at jpprout@gmail.com.