Thomas J. Brock is a CFA and CPA with more than 20 years of experience in various areas including investing, insurance portfolio management, finance and accounting, personal investment and financial planning advice, and development of educational materials about life insurance and annuities.
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“Banking is necessary, but banks are not,” Bill Gates, business magnate and philanthropist, once said. That is the theme of our list of the seven best banking books, some of which present clear alternatives to the banks as we’ve known them.
Our best overall book is Banking on It: How I Disrupted an Industry, by innovator and banker Anne Boden. Boden was a highly experienced bank executive when she decided to leave corporate life and start a wholly digital bank in the United Kingdom called Starling.
In There’s Nothing Micro About a Billion Women: Making Finance Work for Women, Mary Ellen Iskenderian, another innovator and visionary, discusses how she has been fulfilling her wish to help women in poor countries and lower-income circumstances gain access to a financial system that will allow them to be paid into an account where they can also save money and pay bills. These are activities we all take for granted, yet a billion women are blocked from them for a number of reasons.
Finally, in The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis, by Lev Menand, the author calls out Congress for not taking on necessary financial responsibility—and the Federal Reserve for taking on too much of it—to solve some of the United States’ most intractable fiscal problems, such as fallout from the financial crisis of 2008 and the shortfall caused by COVID-19.
Best Overall: Banking on It: How I Disrupted an Industry
What are the chances of a 54-year-old Welshwoman starting a fully digital bank after the financial crisis in an industry dominated by young men? Not so good, as evidenced by sobering facts on how little money is available to women entrepreneurs.
The visionary Anne Boden, CEO and founder of Starling Bank, quotes the Financial Times in her Banking on It: “In the U.K., just 1% of all venture capital funding goes to all-female-founded teams, and that figure remains stagnant year after year.” Even in Switzerland, which perennially is called the “most equal country in Europe,” women-led companies get just over 22% of available funds, according to PitchBook Data.
Prior to starting the London-headquartered Starling, Boden had three decades of experience in banking. She was chief operating officer (COO) of Allied Irish Banks (AIB) during her last in-house corporate stint. As a banking executive, she observed how banks simply missed the point of what customers wanted. She noted that banks spend millions constructing glass-and-steel towers and minimally decorated branches with stylish sofas that few customers ever visit.
Starling customers do their banking at the 11,500 U.K. Post Offices, as the bank owns no physical branches. One impetus to launch a new type of bank, she noted, was that customers—especially younger ones—wanted less but more. Her instinct was that they craved seamless processes achievable digitally to open accounts and apply for mortgages, for instance, instead of sitting in a bank for an hour or so, filling out long forms, and waiting days for their account to go live.
In Banking on It: How I Disrupted an Industry, Boden recounts her inspiring, yet uncertain, journey beginning in 2014 to give Starling’s customers what she sensed they needed. In July 2022, the bank achieved its first full year of profitability. The book takes you through a nail-biting whirlwind of funding rounds to setting up partnerships, to securing the proper licenses and approvals from the U.K. government, to creating the technology. Certainly, Boden’s venture was far from a sure thing, but to quote her, she was “banking on it” all coming to fruition.
Best on Helping Women Excluded from the Financial System: There’s Nothing Micro About a Billion Women: Making Finance Work for Women
Mary Ellen Iskenderian started out working in high finance, mergers and acquisitions, then as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. However, she soon realized that her passion was not making lots of money. Iskenderian went on to become president and CEO of Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit focused on giving low-income women access to the financial tools and resources they need for their own security and prosperity.
In There’s Nothing Micro About a Billion Women: Making Finance Work for Women, she writes that her mission is doing her part to rectify how about 1 billion women worldwide are excluded from the formal financial system. Being shut out means that these women don’t have a bank account and are unable to save money, pay bills, or get credit. This leaves them without the wherewithal to move ahead or exit a situation, such as a bad marriage that is no longer working for them and their children. It also means that they are unable to contribute to economic growth.
Women’s World Banking helps women in many economically developing nations, with outposts in Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kenya. It is now starting a branch in the United States that will tackle American income inequality—U.S. women have 40% of the assets of men, and Black and Latina women have much less: 12% and 8%, respectively. The nonprofit also runs two impact investing funds with $150 million in assets under management (AUM).
Best Explanation of DeFi: DeFi and the Future of Finance
“DeFi is fundamentally a competitive marketplace of decentralized financial applications that function as various financial ‘primitives’ such as exchange, save, lend, and tokenize,” write authors Campbell R. Harvey, a finance professor at Duke University; Ashwin Ramachandran, a general partner at Dragonfly Capital; and Joey Santoro, founder of Fei Labs, in DeFi and the Future of Finance, which presents one potential pathway to the financial future.
They contend that while traditional finance has “layers of fat and inefficiency” that robs value from the average consumer, decentralization can help prevent widening the wealth gap. Yet, decentralization also comes with drawbacks, they acknowledge: “Certain risks like scaling and smart contract vulnerabilities plague all DeFi, and overcoming them is crucial to DeFi’s mainstream adoption.”
In a Bloomberg review, Jay Penske, chairman and CEO of Penske Media Corp., wrote, “The book serves as a helpful guide, outlining some of the companies that will disrupt the financial ecosystem, while cutting through the smoke and mirrors.”
Best Read on a Banking Dynasty: The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance
For those long winter nights ahead, there may be no better banking book to delve into than the 800-page The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, by award-winning author Ron Chernow. Morgan won Chernow the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Chernow is a chronicler of many wealthy or prominent (or both) Americans and their families, including John D. Rockefeller Sr., Alexander Hamilton (adapted into the long-running Broadway hit Hamilton), George Washington: A Life, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, and The Warburgs, a prominent German Jewish, then German American Jewish, banking family.
In The House of Morgan, Chernow takes the reader from the “old Wall Street—elite, clubby, and dominated by small mysterious partnerships,” which included the Morgans and their “houses,” banks—from 1838 to 1989 in London, 1861 to 1989 in New York, and 1868 to 1975 in Paris. The patriarch, JuniusSpencer Morgan, began his auspicious climb to the top after he accepted American George Peabody’s offer to be his junior partner in 1854 at the London firm George Peabody and Co.
Peabody, who was in his 60s and ailing, single, and childless (at least legally childless), found in the then-middle-age Morgan a successor. Chernow’s book details how and why Peabody’s company would become, after his retirement in 1864, the global J.P. Morgan and Associates. It then chronicles the many manifestations of the family businesses—their heights, political power, and business scandals—and the personal ups and downs of individual family members.
Best Innovative Idea to Help the Unbanked and Underbanked: How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy
“The United States has two separate banking systems today—one serving the well-to-do and another exploiting everyone else,” writes Mehrsa Baradaran in How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy. The law professor, who specializes in banking law at the University of California, Irvine, notes that America’s banking system began as a public service, but has lost that mission in the era of corporate megabanks with trillions of dollars in assets.
One solution for the unbanked or underbanked, Baradaran suggests, is postal banking. This would give theU.S. Postal Service the authority to help people set up savings and checking accounts, debit cards, and low-dollar loans to replace how unbanked people currently handle bills—using payday lenders and check-cashing services that come with hefty fees they cannot afford.
Postal banking would not only help lower-income Americans but also provide a needed cash infusion to the Postal Service, contends Baradaran. The United States had such a system in place from 1911 to 1967, and many other countries still offer similar banking services through their postal services.
Starling Bank, mentioned above in the review of Banking on It, doesn’t offer branches, instead directing customers to the U.K.’s 11,500 Post Office locations to handle their banking. In March 2022, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the Postal Banking Act, which would reinstate banking services through the postal system.
The Biden administration had short-listed Baradaran to be Comptroller of the Currency, which instead went to Cornell law professor Saule Omarova (whose nomination was later withdrawn). Since then, Baradaran’s name has been floated as a possible candidate for the Federal Reserve.
At the end of her book, Baradaran concludes: “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
Best Book on the Fed: The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis
Lev Menand thinks the Federal Reserve has lost its way, mainly because it has been tackling projects outside of the U.S. central bank’s original scope. Because of that practice, Menand contends that the Fed has inadvertently expanded this country’s wealth inequality.
In The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis, which is part of the Columbia Global Reports series, Menand—an associate professor of law at Columbia University, former economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Treasury official under then-President Barack Obama—believes that the Fed routinely takes on what Congress should be handling. Some examples: when the Fed added $3 trillion to its balance sheet in 2020 to avert a financial panic during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling of the 2008 crisis to keep the economy out of recession.
Each time the Fed steps up, writes Menand, it stimulates more growth in nonbank money creation. In 2008, he notes, nonbank money totaled $15 trillion of the U.S. money supply, compared to $7 trillion in traditional bank deposits and $1 trillion in physical cash.
“Today, the Fed is no longer just managing the money supply by administering the banking system [the central bank’s job],” Menand writes. “It is fighting persistent economic and financial crises by using its balance sheet like an emergency government credit bureau or national investment authority—creating new money to backstop financial firms, expand financial markets, and invest in businesses and municipalities.”
Best Book on Crypto History and How Digitalized Currency Helps the Unbanked: The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and the Blockchain Are Challenging the Global Economic Order
“[In The Age of Cryptocurrency, Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna] simplify and make blockchain and crypto very easy for people to understand,” says Investopedia’s Vinamrata Chaturvedi, senior editor for blockchain and cryptocurrency. “Any newbie should consider the book because it speaks to people about financial issues and how to deal with them using technology. Those with some knowledge should also read the book because it will clear up any doubts they may have.”
Co-authors Vigna, a bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and markets reporter for TheWall Street Journal, and Casey, chief content officer at CoinDesk, break down the digital currencies world to understandable concepts, and they intersperse their narrative with history and even humor. Chapter titles spell out what the book offers: Genesis, Community, Building the Blockchain, Satoshi’s Mill, The Unbanked, and Come What May.
About San Francisco, “the epicenter of the digitized gold rush,” they write: “The entire region has a go-for-broke, strike-it-rich vibe, and mixed with the high-tech bitcoin world, you get this odd crossbreed of people who want to change the world and become fabulously wealthy. They see no inconsistency in that.”
As millennials and younger generations have walked away from the banking of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, which still dominates the industry, digital banking has taken center stage. One of the people who anticipated the shift was veteran banker Anne Boden. In her book, Banking on It: How I Disrupted an Industry, Boden outlines how she decided to start—and executed her plan to start—Starling Bank, a digital-only bank in the U.K., where customers do their banking at the post office. Boden’s smart story is inspiring reading for anyone who has the disruptor gene or admires it. We have named it our best book on the list.
Why Trust Investopedia?
Michelle Lodge knows how to find the best of its kind in the book world. She has been published in Publishers Weekly and was an editor and writer for Library Journal, both of which cover books and the industry. While a book review editor at Library Journal, which recommends books for public library collections, she selected a number of top books on banking for review. She was also the editor of the On Wall Street Book Club, in which she reviewed books and ran a podcast interviewing authors.
Seeking out a diversified field of books on banking requires lots of reading, including releases from book publishers and industry consultants, a passel of contenders, as well as publications, such as the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Times of London, and others, and consultations with many experts. Lodge also pulled her resources together by collecting recommendations from the Investopedia Financial Review Board members and Investopedia editors. Lodge’s aim is to present the reader with factual, actionable books that are well-written, enjoyable to read, and cover the bases in subject matter and expertise. Her goal is also to tap into a diverse pool of writers, new and experienced, whose coverage reveals the many influences on and perspectives about banking.