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on 28 December 2008
I got the impression that Peston was urged to put out a book quickly, so he used a lot of his old archive material (Green, M and S etc). But it's worth it as there are some good chapters on hedge funds, and a reminder that our banks were actually borrowing to buy all that toxic waste, which somehow drove home the stupidity of it all.
Not as good as his scoops!
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on 15 February 2009
I first noticed Robert Peston on BBC news during the early days of the credit crunch, when he whipped up a feeling of excitement with his strange use of STRESS in the middle of sentences and hesitation when there was no need for a pause.
Having read the book I have come to the conclusion that it was updated to make it more attractive (and more sellable) by linking it to the current financial crisis. The first part of the title "Who Runs Britian?" is what the book is really about. The second part "..and Who's to Blame for the Economic Mess we're in" was probably tagged on later (by the publisher?)and is misleading.
Most of the movers and shakers that Peston talks about had little or nothing to do with the current crisis, unless you feel any successful entreprenuer is ultimately as culpable as the bankers.
The book describes the deals and life-styles of people like: Philip Green, Sir Arnold Cohen, Stuart Rose and Lord Levy. A lot of the book is based on interviews that Peston did with these characters. Only a small section of the book deals with toxic loans, SIVs and CDOs and the real causes behind the crisis. There is also an ambiguity about how much Peston admires these people and how much he dilikes them. Is he really happy being the journalist he is, or would he rather have been one of these city giants himself?
Ultimately the book is an interesting piece of ephemera. Personally, I would much rather read some of the weightier writers who do work for the Financial Times. People like Martin Woolf, Niall Ferguson and John Authers may not have all the contacts that Robert Peston has, but they have a deeper understanding of how the financial markets work and are therefore able to make much more profound statements than the more lightweight Robert Peston.
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on 16 January 2009
I bought this book on the strength of its title and the press reviews I had seen which implied it would provide a clear and systematic explanation of the economic mess we're in, and of what this means for government. Yet what I found instead were a collection of essays about different aspects of the financial system - such as private equity, pension funds, the retail sector (notably M&S), the Post Office, and the 'cash for honours' debacle, with only one chapter really devoted to the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market (and that was written before the collapse of Lehman brothers and all the ramifications that had). Chapters 3 and 4 in particular seemed to be an extended biography of Sir Philip Green which I found so 'off-topic' that it almost made me give up reading the rest of the book. And although Robert Peston did explain all these different facets of the modern financial system in an engaging way, I often did not find it clear whether he was defending the system or attacking it. If the latter, it was not clear what he believes should have been done, or by whom, to have made things turn out better. One example of his muddled analysis struck me in particular. On the cash for honours issue, he concludes: "The leader of a party created to give voice to the neediest and most oppressed was attempting to confer political power on the wealthy for no other conspicuous reason than that they had the financial means to keep him in power." Put this way, the implication is that he should have abandoned the neediest and oppressed by not seeking donations from the rich to keep his party in power. But surely the real argument is not that Labour sought funding for its programme, but that it appeared to be rewarding donors with honours, just as (he claims) the Tories did. The fault was not having a better system for equalising funding between different parties.

I also found that this book was not quite the 'idiot's guide' I had expected from the reviews. Maybe the type of person who would read a book like this might be expected to know already what a hedge fund is, but I was left little the wiser. Fortunately, I could follow the broad thrust of what he was saying, and a lot of it was very interesting even though I was left feeling that I did not really understand how all these little pieces of the financial jigsaw related to each other, nor to the whole picture. All-in-all a bit of a curate's egg, but worth the effort.
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on 9 April 2010
I've had this book sitting on the shelf since last April after buying it in a fit of enthusiasm one day. Truth be told, I was a tad wary of picking it up, thinking that I would understand not a word of it and be left feeling more bewildered than fiscally enlightened.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Rarely has a subject grabbed me with so much force and simply compelled me into sitting down and learning. I kept finding myself opening it up again while sitting at my desk, desperately trying to cram in a few extra lines between tasks. The writing is vivid and engaging, and the subject matter actually makes for eye-popping reading at times, which isn't something I thought I would ever encounter in a book dealing with that jaw-droppingly sexy subject that is finance.

Peston covers most topics economic, from private equity to hedge funds to collateralized debt obligations (I didn't even know those existed let alone what they were before!) and their relevance to the market meltdowns of 2007 and beyond. It really is a whistle-stop `tourist guide' to modern economics, a subject which, I would hazard, swathes of us know shamefully little about. I personally have been completely staggered by some of the things I have read here. Particularly shocking and upsetting are Peston's insights into the way in which our elected representatives have consistently bowed down to what he refers to as `the plutocracy' through generous tax treatment, special favours and even knighthoods.

It appears to me that the world of the uber-financials is a sort of sub-terranian environment within itself that many (most?) of us in our day-to-day lives are quite happy to completely ignore or dismiss on the basis that it's too complicated to even begin to try and understand. Well Peston has done all of the hard graft for us here. The book has evidently been well-researched and his arguments are presented in an extremely readable fashion. When I come to think of it, there's actually no good reason for us not to be clued up on these things, especially given the fact that we are all affected one way or another by the wheeling and dealing that goes on in our biggest financial cities. As far as the UK is concerned (and there are some fascinating insights into other countries as well), I'd definitely advocate Peston's book as a good place to start reading. Just clear your diary of all prior engagements first!
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on 24 July 2013
I never would have believed that a book about high finance could engage my emotions as much as this one did. Chapter by chapter I veered between the hysterical laughter of incredulity, deep rooted rage and profound depression.

Who Runs Britain?...and who's to blame for the economic mess we're in, by Robert Peston, is a must read for anyone working in the voluntary sector. The author takes you on a very readable journey through things such as the principles of private equity; hedge funds; benchmarked funds; what happened and is happening to our pensions; when is a loan not a loan (when it's given to a political party apparently) and perhaps most disturbingly of all - how little politicians understand how high finance really works and yet how blindly they follow the money.

I had always been under the impression that people engaged in high finance were cleverer and more open to risk taking than the rest of us. As I worked my way though the book it became clear to me that in fact that is not the case. I realised that high finance is quite simple really - it's basically about borrowing money and then betting with it, keeping the returns which are huge but even when the bet goes wrong you don't really lose your own stake - and even if you do, it's relatively small in relation to the loss of the money you borrowed - the risk of which doesn't really lie with you. Frankly, we take a bigger risk every time we buy a lottery ticket, as we pretty much know we won't win but we do it any way. It seems that this lot don't bet on uncertainties - and the returns are huge.

According to Peston, the real losers are ordinary people, those of us who graft away on a daily basis, paying our taxes, if not enthusiastically, at least with an understanding of our moral obligation to do so. Unlike our financiers, says Peston, many of whom dodge taxes even more easily than the South African forwards dodge our back row! It's our pensions, our jobs and our welfare state that are the playthings of the rich and ruthless.

So if, as Peston implies, its that easy, then why don't we all do it? Well, it could be because the world of high finance is littered with words like bear and bull and hedge (you'd be forgiven for thinking that its about producing things with words like that - you'd be wrong of course) so that the rest of us get all confused and don't know how to do it. Actually, it seems to me there are only two skills you need to do well in the world of high finance. An amazing capacity for greed and a complete disregard for the wants and needs of others. I guess most of the rest of us lack those particular talents.

It is unclear what side Robert Peston falls on. There are times when he clearly admires the clever way in which some individuals can play markets and governments, realising huge financial returns as a result. Yet littered through his prose you can sense his almost palpable despair about the lack of responsibility these individuals demonstrate and the sheer incompetence of our politicians.

Early on in the book he describes an event at the Roundhouse in London where a group of lawyers, bankers and pirates (sorry, I mean private equity financiers) gathered together to set up a charitable trust called the Private Equity Foundation. Peston says that the collective net worth of those individuals in that room was in excess of £10 billion. Now given that the shorthand for large sums of money can distort our understanding of how large a sum that is, £10 billion is £10,000,000,000. That's ten times one hundred million, 100 times 10 million, 10,000 times 1 million. In other words, shed loads of money!

These individuals endowed the Private Equity Foundation with the paltry sum of £5.1 million. I'm not normally given to biblical phrases, but camels, eyes and needles spring to mind here - a view which Robert Peston appears to share.

I am now conscious that this is supposed to be a book review and not a rant about the evils of unfettered capitalism. But I suppose that's what's so clever about this book. It made me really care about understanding more about the drivers behind our economy and democracy. I am by no means an expert now, but Robert Peston has given me some profound and in some cases unanswerable questions to ask of my government, my private sector pals and my own conscience. You really should read it.
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on 30 November 2009
Overall an interesting and well written account of high finance in Britain in the last few years. Peston does a good job of explaining the technicalities of finance in an easy to understand way for the lay person.

The book does jump around a lot, slightly lacks focus and feels a lot more like a collection of stories (although they are all told very well) than a book with a proper theme.

Glad I've read it even though it made me angry and at times depressed (with the bankers and hedge funds, not Peston).
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on 16 October 2011
A very good summary of the large shift of real political and financial power that has come about over the last couple of decades.

The book is written in Peston's slightly verbose style - I can almost hear him talking - but is very readable none the less. For anyone that doesn't want to read the whole book, but is just interested in how people like Philip Green managed to get the banks to hand over to him personally, or rather his wife over 1.5 billion, and how they paid no tax on this sum, the chapter on Arcadia is worth the price of the book alone.

Peston appears to have considerable 'inside' information and quotes liberally from interviews with the new 'rulers', to support his case that the real political power now lies with the few super rich, powers given to them by a fawning cowardly political class. He struggles with the idea that those who have revitalised some sectors of the economy, and thus have created or saved jobs have, at the same time, made themselves hugely wealthy at the expense of the pension funds of ordinary people.

An essential read for anyone who hasn't yet realised that we have entered some new form of feudalism.
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on 7 February 2009
Robert Peston in his book details how the supine FSA, raids on pensions by Gordon Brown as the Chancellor, feckless lending, together with little control of consumer spending got the world into this mess.

The message is that the colusion between the involved parties, means you must have cynical disregard for the City, finacial institutions and especiallyt the Government.
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on 25 February 2009
Mr Peston writes intelligently and interestingly and manages to make the most complex of subjects readily comprehensible to those of us who know little of the financial world. Essential and enjoyable (if alarming) reading for anyone who wants to know what's been going on in England over the last ten years with regard to banking, pensions, private equity and hedge funds.
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on 18 December 2011
As far as economics and banking are concerned there is a lot of bias towards stock markets and other types of wayward investments which are promoted by many national television companies, news papers and other publications. These investments have benefits for governments and many wealthy people who have made their career by manipulating the system but unfortunately have undermined the world economy with devastating consequnces for their gains. Although Robert Peston works for the British Government run British Broadcasting Company it is very different from any books you may have read on economics, Capitalism and banking. Robert Peston's "Who Runs Britain" may be the first step to reform which will bring back the progress that used to exist in our world. See more on this at Anti-Crisis Economics Blog:
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