Two Depression-era histories, two books by serving corporate bosses, a blow-by-blow assessment of the US authorities’ reaction to the financial crisis, and a manifesto for a new economic theory. The shortlist for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award looks eclectic. But the six books together sum up what went wrong in the crisis and may provide a route map away from the error-strewn past.

The judges gathered earlier this week at Goldman’s New York headquarters to identify six finalists from a longlist of 15. Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, called the list “outstanding” and Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman’s chief executive – echoing the mission of the award – said all the books were “both compelling and enjoyable”.

The judges were united in praise for the quality of the shortlist. That is not a surprise in a year in which some of the world’s best academics, journalists and management and business writers, applied their expertise to the roots and consequences of the global credit crunch. What is more surprising is that three of the shortlisted authors were moonlighting from their day jobs: Nandan Nilekani, who wrote Imagining India and is also co-chairman of Infosys, the technology group; Liaquat Ahamed, a director, adviser and investment manager, whose Lords of Finance is one of the two histories on the list; and Stephen Green, chairman of HSBC, the bank.

Green’s Good Value is a striking personal insight into money and morality. Alex Friedman, chief financial officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called it “terrific and brave” that a top executive had looked at “the crux of an issue being raised by the popular press”.

By contrast, Ahamed’s book cleverly tells the story of the build-up to the Great Depression through the central bankers that tried but failed to stabilise the global economy in the 1920s. It was lauded by the judges for the elegance of its writing and there was widespread agreement with London Business School’s Lynda Gratton’s assessment that it had “a contemporary feel”.

The same description applies to The Match King, Frank Partnoy’s retelling of the almost forgotten story of Ivar Krueger, the businessman who smooth-talked Wall Street and Europe in the 1920s before his empire collapsed amid allegations of fraud. Friedman said Krueger’s story, as told by Partnoy, showed “the slippery slope that humans can get themselves onto”.

The crash-hit financiers and politicians of 70 or 80 years ago sound surprisingly similar to the 21st century policymakers and central bankers anatomised by David Wessel in his book, In Fed We Trust. One judge praised it as a “keenly observed” account of the build-up to last year’s US banking crisis.

The only title on the list not explicitly or implicitly linked to the recent crisis is Nilekani’s Imagining India. Previous shortlists have focused on the growing importance of China, but the other Asian economic superpower has tended to miss out. The judges agreed it carried added weight because of Nilekani’s role as contributor to the country’s rapid growth.

Finally, this list would have felt lopsided without an economic analysis of the current situation. There were three on the longlist and Animal Spirits by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller won through. The authors launch proposals to rebuild the discipline following the realisation that people and businesses are not the rational actors loved by orthodox market economists. Economist Mario Monti, former European commissioner and president of Milan’s Bocconi University, said the book stood out for its “depth of reasoning”, but he underlined that it was “not just an academic book and not just a book prompted by the crisis”.

In other words, it should easily outlast the recent economic and financial turmoil – making it, like all the shortlisted titles, a durable addition to the canon of the best business books.

Do you agree with the judges? What books would you like to see on the shortlist? Have your say in the Management blog.

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