The sweeping story of the world’s first financial crisis: “an astounding episode from the early days of financial markets that to this day continues to intrigue and perplex historians . . . narrative history at its best, lively and fresh with new insights” (Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Lords of Finance)

A Financial Times Economics Book of the Year ● Longlisted for the Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
 
In the heart of the Scientific Revolution, when new theories promised to explain the affairs of the universe, Britain was broke, facing a mountain of debt accumulated in war after war it could not afford. But that same Scientific Revolution—the kind of thinking that helped Isaac Newton solve the mysteries of the cosmos—would soon lead clever, if not always scrupulous, men to try to figure a way out of Britain’s financial troubles. 
 
Enter the upstart leaders of the South Sea Company. In 1719, they laid out a grand plan to swap citizens’ shares of the nation’s debt for company stock, removing the burden from the state and making South Sea’s directors a fortune in the process. Everybody would win. The king’s ministers took the bait—and everybody did win. Far too much, far too fast. The following crash came suddenly in a rush of scandal, jail, suicide, and ruin. But thanks to Britain’s leader, Robert Walpole, the kingdom found its way through to emerge with the first truly modern, reliable, and stable financial exchange.

Thomas Levenson’s Money for Nothing tells the unbelievable story of the South Sea Bubble with all the exuberance, folly, and the catastrophe of an event whose impact can still be felt today.
“[A] vivid narrative . . . Mr. Levenson pauses to describe the reform of the English coinage and to ponder the nature of money itself. This last topic could hardly be timelier.”—Wall Street Journal

“A compelling read . . . a vivid account of the development of share trading in the coffee shops of Exchange Alley in the City, with fascinating asides.”Financial Times

“Does a stock market crash and a plague sound somehow familiar? Thomas Levenson’s new book is proof—very cleverly told—of how enlightening history can be. There is no excuse not to learn from the past.”—Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature 

“Superb, fascinating, and totally timely, Money for Nothing is a gripping history of the South Sea Bubble by a scholar who makes complicated and subtle matters not just accessible but fun—the story of a world crisis with a flashy cast of grifters, scientists, politicians, and charlatans that Levenson makes utterly relevant to the 2008 financial crisis and 2020 pandemic. . . . Essential reading.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem and The Romanovs 

“Levenson is a brilliant synthesizer with a grand view of history. Here is the birth of modern finance amid catastrophe and fraud—a gripping story of scientists and swindlers, all too pertinent to our modern world.”—James Gleick, author of Time Travel: A History 

“Inspired by Isaac Newton’s example, clever schemers sought to conquer the chaos of human affairs by abstracting financial value from tangible goods. Their calculations unleashed the notorious South Sea Bubble, which destroyed fortunes and roiled nations. Thoroughly researched and vibrantly written, Money for Nothing captures those heady, heartbreaking times, which still hold lessons for today.”—David Kaiser, author of Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World 

“The story of government debt finance, which sounds boring but definitely isn’t . . . an enthralling account of an economic revolution that emerged from a scandal.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)