Practical analysis for investment professionals
19 November 2015

Book Review: Genealogy of American Finance

Genealogy of American Finance. 2015. Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla.

This unusual reference work was the brainchild of longtime money manager Charles Royce, who saw the need for a comprehensive set of “family trees” of the nation’s largest financial firms. The trustees of the Museum of American Finance embraced the idea and gladly accepted Royce’s offer to fund the research efforts of the book’s two authors, financial historians Robert E. Wright and Richard Sylla. In addition to tracing the histories of America’s 50 largest financial corporations, this richly illustrated coffee-table book spotlights many of the important economic events that influenced the evolutions of those institutions.

Only 20% of the book’s two- to five-page summaries describe the formation and evolution of such familiar national and international powerhouses as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and HSBC North America. Some 60% of the summaries bring to light the lesser-known stories of such regional banking innovators as U.S. Bancorp, PNC Financial Services, and SunTrust Banks. The remaining 20% present the even more intriguing evolutions of such institutions as American Express, John Deere Capital, and USAA, whose original purposes were in businesses other than investments or banking. Time and again, the reader interested in a particular institution will find the key events in that story placed in the context of the financial and economic picture of the period. Short introductory and concluding pieces further cement the importance of America’s unique banking structure and the intertwining of various changes in its operation with the ups and downs of the nation’s economy.

Investment professionals (including this reviewer) who were caught up in any of the hundreds of consolidating transactions traced in the genealogies should appreciate the authors’ dispassionate narratives of those events. Clearly, the profiles were written by objective academics who avoided either blaming or praising the actions of company management in dealing with financial crises of both the recent and the more distant past. Like all good histories, this collection of 50 write-ups includes a useful list of sources. By necessity, the print edition shows only abridged diagrams of the various genealogies. However, a companion website offers even nonpurchasers of the book access to a complete list of all the acquisitions made by each surviving institution.

Genealogy of American Finance should make particularly interesting reading for the thousands of investment professionals who have ever worked at a company that eventually became a component of one of the 50 institutions the authors profile. It should also be useful as a colorful and easy-to-read replacement for the stale magazines that grace many of those professionals’ reception-area coffee tables.

More book reviews are available on the CFA Institute website or in the Financial Analysts Journal.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

About the Author(s)
Michael A. Martorelli, CFA

Michael A. Martorelli, CFA, is a director at Fairmount Partners, West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and adjunct professor of finance at Philadelphia University.

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