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The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources

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'Gripping' Economist
'Jaw-dropping' Sunday Times
'Riveting' Financial Times
'Fascinating' Reuters

Shortlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
Financial Times and Economist Book of the Year

The modern world is built on commodities - from the oil that fuels our cars to the metals that power our smartphones.

We rarely stop to consider where they come from. But we should.

In The World for Sale, two leading journalists lift the lid on one of the least scrutinised corners of the economy: the workings of the billionaire commodity traders who buy, hoard and sell the earth's resources.

It is the story of how a handful of swashbuckling businessmen became indispensable cogs in global markets: enabling an enormous expansion in international trade, and connecting resource-rich countries - no matter how corrupt or war-torn - with the world's financial centres.

And it is the story of how some traders acquired untold political power, right under the noses of Western regulators and politicians - helping Saddam Hussein to sell his oil, fuelling the Libyan rebel army during the Arab Spring, and funnelling cash to Vladimir Putin's Kremlin in spite of strict sanctions.

The result is an eye-opening tour through the wildest frontiers of the global economy, as well as a revelatory guide to how capitalism really works.

'This jaw-dropping study shows how much money and global influence is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group . . . A remarkable book . . . As the authors roam from oilfield to wheatfield, they reveal information so staggering you almost gasp.' SUNDAY TIMES

'Rollicking yarns from the biggest ever commodity boom . . . The high level narrative is gripping enough. But it is the details of what these freewheeling companies actually got up to that give the book a thriller-like quality . . . Educational and entertaining.' FINANCIAL TIMES

'A fascinating and revealing story . . . There are tales in the book of breathtaking trades, such as shipments of rebel oil from war-torn Libya or deals bartered amid the brutal "aluminium wars" in the Russia of the 1990s.' ECONOMIST

'A globe-spanning corporate thriller, full of intrigue and double dealing . . . Changes how we see the world, often in horrifying ways . . . New insights and reporting mean that even seasoned observers will be amazed.' SPECTATOR

'Javier Blas and Jack Farchy should be awaiting the call from Hollywood. The World for Sale contains at least half a dozen narrative threads that would form the basis of a good thriller. But the authors' main achievement is to subject the biggest commodity players, and their impact on the real world, to proper critical scrutiny.' REUTERS

'Blas and Farchy shine light on what's long been the financial markets' darkest corner - the crucial, yet underappreciated, role commodity traders play in global finance and geopolitics . . . The World For Sale is a fascinating, eye-opening read.' GREGORY ZUCKERMAN, author of The Man Who Solved the Market

'The definitive, eye-opening story of the most powerful and secretive traders in the world.' BRADLEY HOPE, co-author of Billion Dollar Whale

'If you have the slightest interest in how the modern world was made, by whom, at what price, and at what profit, this is the book for you . . . Superbly researched.' FOREIGN POLICY

'Javier Blas and Jack Farchy deftly peel back the curtain on the amoral swashbucklers of capitalism who trade in commodities . . . The World for Sale is a gripping account of how they achieved their stranglehold over the world economy, and their troubling influence on global politics.' BRAD STONE, author of The Everything Store

'Some of the stories could be straight out of John Le Carré. The difference is they're true . . . Fascinating.' ANDREW NEIL

320 pages, Hardcover

First published June 1, 2021

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Javier Blas

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Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews335 followers
October 28, 2021
Blas and Farchy report on the commodity traders beginning after WWII. They show us how billions were amassed by brazen amoral men who went anywhere and did anything to make deals, deals that shaped our world economically and politically. These traders were risk takers in every sense of the word. We see how they helped countries escaping their colonialist masters creating what came to be called emerging markets and determining the life or death of regimes. We find out how they stepped in during the chaotic demise of the Soviet Union saving factories and enabling those who would become oligarchs. We learn how ostracized regimes buy what they need and sell what they have despite the severest sanctions. We see how today’s leading commodity trading companies like Glencore and Trafigura arose from the ashes of innovative and driven traders like Marc Rich. It’s a fascinating, informative and revealing read. My notes follow.

In the 1950s and 60s the grain trading company Cargill began selling grain to the Soviet Union as did other trading companies. Next came deals to buy Soviet oil. The oil majors, then known as the Seven Sisters, dominated the market. They were not traders. They owned oil fields and refined oil. Traders didn’t produce or process, they just bought and sold the commodity. As countries nationalized their oilfields and mines, traders made it possible for them to succeed by taking huge risks providing financing in return for commodities yet to be produced. These were the pioneers led by companies like Philipp Brothers and Marc Rich + Co. They operated by cultivating influential contacts in countries around the world and gathering intelligence on supply and demand to forecast prices. They maintained low profiles and kept their business secret.

Recognizing OPEC was changing the game and tensions were rising in the Middle East Marc Rich made a huge purchase of Iranian oil in 1973. Rich’s boss, the president of Philipp Brothers, got cold feet and forced Rich to sell his contract for little profit. Then, as Rich expected, oil prices doubled. That was enough for Rich. He left the established Philipp Brothers after twenty years there as a trader, even though he was the designated successor to the president. He took some of the most aggressive and talented traders with him and setup Marc Rich + Co in 1974. Rich would dominate oil trading for the next twenty years. In three years, his company was making more money than Philipp Brothers and in the fifth year exceeded $1 billion in profit. This was a tidy sum in 1979 dollars when a billion was still a lot to make in one year. In fact, this would place his company among the ten most profitable in America that year. Rich and his crew of traders did this by traveling to the remotest parts of the globe, anyplace with resources, engaging foreign officials and doing whatever it took to win them over.

The authors give us an example of the way Marc Rich worked. Friday evening in early 1980s Jamaica, Hugh Hart, the minister of mines and energy gets a call from the central bank. There is no money to pay for that month’s oil delivery tomorrow for the nation’s only refinery. It will run dry on Sunday and there will be no gas to deliver to the nation’s gas stations. The government might fall. What to do. Hart called, Willy, his Marc Rich + Co contact in New York. The trader told Hart there was nothing he could do, but gave him Marc Rich’s personal phone number warning him that Rich lived in Switzerland where it was 2AM. Hart called “Mr. Rich, it’s Hugh Hart, you probably don’t know me.” Rich: “Oh yes, I know all about you. What the hell are you waking me up at two o’clock in the morning for?” Hart: “Well, it’s just a small matter of life and death.” Hart explained. Rich responded “It’s two o’clock on Friday night and your central bank can’t raise $10 million. What the hell?” Hart pleaded. Silence. Rich made an instant decision. “Call Willy in an hour.” And Rich hung up. When Hart called, Willy said a tanker with oil would arrive tomorrow. No contract, nothing written, all word of mouth. Rich diverted a tanker transiting the Caribbean to Jamaica. The next day it delivered the 300,000 barrels of oil needed. Rich was dominant in the oil markets. Rich took this kind of risk and made these kinds of deals regularly.

Hart and his brother-in-law, the prime minister, would not forget Rich. Rich went on to make a lucrative deal for Jamaican bauxite. Rich made a lot of money over the years of the deal and went on to dominate aluminum markets around the world. But he stepped in many more times to spot Jamaica money and he kept Jamaica with a steady flow of income while he absorbed the vicissitudes of the market. Rich also bailed out onerous governments such as the apartheid regime of South Africa. Heavily sanctioned, Rich found ways to get oil to South Africa. He used shell companies, faked sources and tanker itineraries to make everything hard to track. Rich’s downfall began when the Feds went after him for violating sanctions and trading with Iran. They couldn’t make that case but they found he was selling “old” oil as “new”. Oil from new fields is taxed differently in the U.S. Exxon and others had done the same and paid fines. But the Feds had Rich in their crosshairs so they charged him criminally. Rich fled the U.S. and renounced his U.S. citizenship. Switzerland protected him. In 2001 president Clinton pardoned him at the behest of the Israeli Prime Minister and the King of Spain, but perhaps mostly due to Rich’s ex-wife, a big Democratic donor.

In the 1990s Marc Rich + Co. was in trouble. Banks shunned the company run by a fugitive leading to internal disputes and financial problems. Rich, fresh from a bitter divorce, had become intransigent and made a disastrous play buying up the zinc market which subsequently tumbled. Rich lost control and his former traders bought him out renaming the company Glencore. Today Glencore has 145,000 employees doing $142 billion in annual revenue. Some of the other traders left and formed Trafigura which today has $147 billion in annual revenue. These two companies have gone on to be dominate players in the world oil and metals markets building on the experience of Marc Rich + Co which had been built on experience Marc Rich gained at Philipps Brothers decades earlier.

The authors tell us how David Reuben, head of Trans-World, cornered the Russian aluminum market. In May 1992 just after the Soviet Union dissolved into chaos a stranger came to Rueben’s office in Moscow. He convinced Reuben to immediately fly with him to a huge aluminum plant in the remote countryside that could no longer get raw materials or sell its output and couldn’t feed its workers and their families. Reuben gave them money on the spot, arranged for the delivery of raw materials and bought their aluminum. By 1994 Reuben’s company controlled half of the Russian aluminum market. However, Russia wasn’t called “the wild east” for nothing. Before long competition for business meant traders were being murdered. Reuben was forced to sell out to a Russian he had been working with, Oleg Deripaska. Yes, the same one still in the news caught up in Ukrainian scandals and whose residences in DC and New York were just raided by the FBI. Deripaska became an oligarch and Putin ally heading Russia’s aluminum giant RUSAL.

Of all the trading companies to profit from the dislocations spawned by the fall of the Soviet Union, Vitol did the best. By the end of the 1990s Vitol became the dominant trading company in oil. Vitol took over the sugar for oil trade that kept Castro’s Cuba afloat. Like others Vitol used shell companies to hide it’s activities evading U.S. embargoes. As former Soviet states and Eastern Europe emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union the trading companies were there venturing where traditional sources of finance feared to tread. Risk taking paid off not only for Vitol but Cargill in agriculture, Glencore in metals with Trafigura also a major player setting the commodity trading landscape for the 21st century.

The 2000s saw the rise of China and emerging markets reshaping commodity markets. “Between 1998 and 2018, the seven largest emerging markets (the BRIC group of Brazil, Russia, India, China, plus Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey) accounted for 92% of the world’s increase in metal consumption, 67% of the increase in energy consumption, and 39% of the increase in food consumption.” Prices exploded. Oil went from $10 per barrel in 1998 to $50 in 2004, nickel quadrupled and other commodity prices increased dramatically. Oil barons and kleptocrats came to power in countries with natural resources to sell and it was the commodity traders who could find buyers and deposit the proceeds in the designated accounts. Iraq was no exception even though the U.N. imposed oil for food program in 2000 required the profit be used for food purchases. With oil prices skyrocketing Saddam Hussein wanted the profit deposited in his account and Glencore stepped up paying “surcharges” forbidden under the U.N. program. Glencore had millions in cash hand carried to the Iraqi embassy in Switzerland. Vitol and Trafigura got in on the action too. All of them set up shell companies to avoid taxes and hide everything. In 2005 a U.N. investigation revealed all. The Swiss let Glencore off while Vitol and Trafigura paid fines. Two American traders involved were sent to jail by the U.S.

With rampant commodity price inflation, traders turned their hungry eyes to Africa. The Congo, rich in copper and cobalt, stood out. Glencore not only traded but bought stakes at favorable prices in Congolese mines. Many Congo officials pocketed handsome sums as was the practice in countries across Africa. In 2018 Glencore found itself caught in a U.S. probe into money laundering and corruption in the Congo. Its stock price tumbled. Traders also made lucrative deals for Nigerian oil. Cargill bought cotton destined for China in Zimbabwe, even issuing its own currency to pay farmers, as Zimbabwe currency became next to worthless. Much of Africa’s riches were destined for China. Soon, China was making its own deals using its own traders. Africa was also a destination for toxic waste. Trafigura thought it could dispose of it cheaply in the Ivory Coast, but the fallout cost it big-time in penalties imposed by the U.K. and Ivory Coast government.

From 2001 to 2011, Vitol (oil), Glencore (metals) and Cargill (agriculture) together made $76.3 billion in profits. Even taking into account inflation, these modern trading companies far exceeded the hundreds of millions made by Phillips Brothers and Marc Rich in the 1970’s. In the down market of the 2008 financial crisis, traders still made money buying and storing oil and aluminum until prices rose. The recession brought attention to the trader’s profits and they were blamed for rising prices. But the authors hold that even the giant traders can only alter prices for the short term. The global markets are too big for even them to corner an entire market and efforts to do so have resulted in significant losses as Marc Rich found out with zinc in the 1990s leading to his demise. One exception was the push by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) to get ethanol approved for use with gasoline in the U.S. ADM spent many millions in lobbying and donations. Corn based ethanol did contribute to a long-term commodity price increase. Now ADM is selling its ethanol plants and renouncing its focus on ethanol.

In 2011 Glencore went public. The market put its value at just under $60 billion. The top thirteen employee-shareholders netted about half of that. Management knew the public scrutiny of its profits would be bad but its world was evolving. The trader’s advantage, timely information, had been diminished by the internet. China had set up its own trading houses to meet its needs and China’s dramatic growth was starting to slow. Meanwhile mining and processing companies were consolidating leaving fewer opportunities. Glencore itself had been buying up mines, a long term investment that required long term capital which is easier to raise as a public company.

Despite being public, Glencore still used shell companies to make money secretly buying and selling oil from regimes others wouldn’t touch such as the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq and dictator run Chad. Meanwhile Vitol using intermediaries scored lucrative deals in authoritarian ruled Kazakhstan. But the biggest prize was Russia. Putin buddy, Igor Sechin, took control of Russian oil giant Rosneft and took on a hefty debt to buy TNK-BP. Then Putin took over Crimea and Rosneft was included in the resulting sanctions. Rosneft could no longer access refinancing of the debt it needed. The commodity traders came to the rescue. Trafigura stepped in but mostly it was Glencore leveraging its partnership with Qatar that bought an $11 billion dollar stake in Rosneft. A triumphant Putin awarded Glencore’s CEO Russia’s Order of Friendship assuring him that Glencore’s business in Russia would prosper.

Commodity traders always saw embargoes and sanctions as opportunities. But traders have drawn increasing attention from Washington. The French bank BNP Paribas was sued by the U.S. for financing Trafigura’s Cuban deals. In 2014 the bank settled the suit for $9 billion then called Trafigura to say it was through financing their deals. Other multi-billion-dollar settlements followed when the U.S. sued HSBC and Credit Suisse. Now European banks are backing away from financing traders. While traders face new challenges and adjust their models accordingly, they still seize opportunity. When the oil price hit rock bottom in the COVID pandemic, traders stepped in buying oil, storing it, biding their time and scoring big profits.
Profile Image for Ian.
764 reviews65 followers
September 22, 2023
Books about business and economics are only an occasional choice for me, but the advantage of not knowing much about the subject is that a book can be informative. I would go as far as to describe this one as eye-opening, at least for me, and one that has improved my understanding of how the world economy operates. (Admittedly that understanding was/is close to non-existent). I listened to the audiobook version.

Commodity traders are middlemen who connect commodity buyers and sellers around the world, trying to spot trends in the market to make a profit. I expect that in many cases they operate to small margins, but this book concentrates on the big hitters in the business. In the 20th century many of the individuals involved made ridiculously high risk gambles on price moves, alternatively gaining and losing hundreds of millions of dollars on trades (but more often gaining). As suggested in the book, it’s not a business for the faint-hearted. Physical courage was needed as much as steely nerves, since the biggest profits were often to be found in unstable parts of the world, where traders flew into the midst of civil wars and did deals with unrecognised rebel groups or unpredictable dictators. The traders practised a sort of extreme capitalism. Often deals were concluded with nothing more than a handshake (given the people they were dealing with, legal contracts would have been unenforceable anyway). One startling example was given from the 1980s, when the government of Jamaica effectively went bankrupt and couldn’t afford any more crude oil imports for its nationalised oil refinery, and the country was within 48 hours of running out of fuel entirely. On a Friday evening a government minister rang the commodity trader Marc Rich in Switzerland (where it was the small hours of the morning) to ask for help. Rich had purchased a tanker load of oil from Venezuela that was on its way to the US, and he diverted the tanker to Jamaica. Payment was not even discussed, but in the long run Rich still benefited, since the Jamaican government did not forget the man who had bailed them out, and Rich was their preferred choice of trader for the country’s bauxite exports.

In general the traders operated to the principle of “profit before politics”. It didn’t matter whether it was communist Cuba or Apartheid-era South Africa, if there was money to be made, the traders would deal. There were several fascinating explanations of “sanctions-busting” activities, for example in Iraq during the 1990s or in getting round the UN oil embargo on 1980s South Africa. Another interesting section was around the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-90. For the traders, this was a bonanza, since in “the world’s biggest closing down sale”, they were able to grab supplies of commodities at rock bottom prices. Of course, the governments of the former communist countries lost out on potential revenue, and the losers were ordinary people, for whom these were years of desperate hardship. The book also looks at the commodities boom of the first decade of the current century, fuelled by rocketing demand from China.

In recent years the big commodity traders have become a “lender of last resort” for various political entities and even internationally recognised governments. The grain trader Cargill even issued its own currency in Zimbabwe, which was trusted more than the government variety. However the 21st century has seen significant curtailment of the free wheeling exploits of the commodity traders, with increased scrutiny from both the public and from governments, no longer willing to turn a blind eye to the more nefarious activities pursued by some of the traders. There are several other structural trends that are likely to limit the traders in future, though the author is confident that they will still be around in some form.

This book is written in lively style, and it’s a pretty interesting window on the astonishing power and influence of the major commodity traders. The authors are journalists with experience working for the Financial Times and for Bloomberg News, so we can be confident they know their stuff. For me, this was an excellent read.
Profile Image for Geevee.
359 reviews209 followers
June 20, 2023
How commodity traders have operated, worked, and made money working and trading in every spot on earth. A very enjoyable, interesting and at times eye-opening account of how the traders started (in the global sense) and how operated from the 1950s to today, across oil, wheat, coal, gas, metals, and other key resources.

The style is easy to read, and any necessary terms and specific industry-speak are explained.

A very good book.

For a far fuller and excellent review, please read @max above dated 28th October 2021.
Profile Image for Will.
2 reviews3 followers
February 28, 2021
This may be a business book, but the pages turn as easily as any airport thriller. Farchy and Blas weave a compelling narrative from the rise of one of the most important, but least known, engines of the global economy: the commodity traders who buy and sell the raw materials vital to every day life, from crude oil to coffee. They include men (and they're all men) like the late Marc Rich, the godfather of the industry who made a fortune selling Iranian oil to South Africa in the 70s and 80s, but became a fugitive from U.S. justice. The book is full of eye-popping examples of unscrupulous business practice -- suitcases stuffed with cash and ships sailing incognito -- and high-stakes deals that hit the jackpot, like buying million of tons of aluminum from the mafia-ravaged wreckage of post-Soviet Russia. But the wonderful anecdotes all add up to a bigger story about how globalization brought huge power and wealth to ambitious men willing to take risks in the wild frontiers of the world economy. If you're interested in the nexus of money, power and geopolitics, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,672 reviews302 followers
August 3, 2021
This is not about the commodities traders who shout and signal at the Chicago Board of Trade. It is about those traders who independently arrange for the sale and delivery of metals, oil, foodstuffs etc. that they (most often) do not own. Some brand name companies had and have their own trading departments that do similar work, but this is about the traders who operate outside of government regulations and can and will deal with the world’s dictators, ignore sanctions, and use cash to skirt taxes and regulation. These traders have worked, until recently, in near anonymity.

Javier Blas and Jack Farchy trace the rise of this industry through the career of Marc Rich. At Phillips Brothers in NYC, Rich learned how to profit by trading metals in impoverished countries. He went off on his own, to Switzerland (where it is easier to keep trade secrets), to form Marc Rich + Co where he pioneered trading practices and deals with repressive, often sanctioned, authoritarian governments (which he unabashedly defended saying his company was “apolitical”). Companies taking on elements of the Rich modus operandi include the Vitol Group, Trans-World, Trafigura, Enron and others. Some were formed by former Marc Rich + Co executives.

Through examples you learn how this shady industry works. They cultivate clients and resource providers by supplying lavish life styles for tyrants and significant bureaucrats in oppressive regimes. Sometimes they buy coal mines or other sources of production to always have a product on tap. With an expected downturn in price of oil they procure tankers and fill up when the price hits rock bottom. The tankers sit, maybe at sea, until the price goes up. When Fidel Castro couldn't give Vitol the sugar cane crop it had paid for in advance, Vitol built and ran a five star hotel in Havana, later selling it at a profit. Stopped at the airport with a suit case of cash, a well dressed and well met trader will merely say he (there are no shes) is on a gambling holiday.

One of the most interesting chapters is how Marc Rich + Co went public. A victim of its own success, the company needed even more money to fuel its gigantic trades. It had already maxed the world’s biggest investors and sovereign funds. Going public seemed the best option but it was painful for the once private traders/onwers to disclose their assets (9 were billionaires) traders and details about their operations.

The story on Marc Rich disappoints. There is a lot on his rise, both in his personal role in the company and on the company itself. On his leaving it, there is some material on the internal power struggle, fines, the buy out and tarnished reputations but there is a big hole. I don't know what is missing, but there should be more about the effects of Rich's influence while being "most wanted" and how the crimes (was it 35 counts?), affected the company in the long and short term.

The book has a lot of loosely connected stories used to illustrate how this trading works. A lot of them are incomplete. An example is how Archer Daniels Midland lobbied to create a market for ethanol (corn). You see ADM “buying” Richard Nixon, Bob Dole and other unnamed politicians. As a result they got loan guarantees and tax breaks for expanding ethanol capacity (to 85% of US production), tariffs levied on foreign competition and under George Bush, a mandate that ethanol be blended into US refined oil. This agricultural company then hired a CEO from the oil industry! The story ends here with a comment that commodity prices went up and “ADM even now disavows the fuel and put its ethanol production refineries up for sale.” How and why did they drop the product that was the focus of their multi-decade lobbying effort – did all the tax breaks and the mandated blending just go away? It is a good example of the power of the traders, but like many of the stories it is incomplete.

The book ends with very good chapters on power, the “skeletons in” the trading company closets and the future of this industry. If you have background on these trading companies, they are worth the read as stand alone essays.

There is a lot of information throughout the book. If you are interested in and new to the topic, it is a place to start.
Profile Image for Daniel.
634 reviews83 followers
June 7, 2021
The commodity traders used to earn so much money, they could support countries such as Jamaica, Khazakhstan and the ill-fated Kurdistan.

1. Theodore Weisser from Mabanaft, was amongst the first to trade with Communist Russia for their oil. Ludwig Jesselson led Philipp Brothers to dominate the commodities market, buying oil and metal from Eastern Europe and the Soviets. John MacMillan’s Cargill sold American grains to the communists. They were the pioneers.

2. Then Israel took oil from Iran through the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Marc Rich made the trade. Then a wave of nationalisation of oil-producing countries took the ownership of the oil fields from the Western companies to the governments. And they didn’t know how to sell. Rich & John Deuss helped them again, loosening the grip of the Seven Sisters, oil companies that used to control the price of oil. Rich also supplied oil to Cuba (Castro years) and South Africa (during the apartheid years). Later he was found trading with Iran even when it had kidnaped Americans. He became wanted by the FBI, renounced his American citizenship, and escaped to Switzerland.

3. Then came Andy Hall who financialized commodity trading with oil futures.

4. Then Marc Rich’s employees left him and formed Glencore and Trafigura.

5. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and firms in it didn’t know how to buy or sell anything. In came the traders like David Reuben (Trans-World) who taught the oligarchs how. But it was dangerous sometimes.

6. Ian Taylor led Vitol to trade with communist countries like Cuba, supporting it when USSR disintegrated and no longer bank-rolled it. He also traded with Oman and Libya’s rebels.

7. The China joined WTO and became hungry for all kinds of commodities, and the traders had a ball. This in turn caused them to source for resources everywhere, and they started to go to Africa, sometimes dealing with warlords, other times dictators. Trafigura got into trouble with dumping toxic wastes in the Côte d’Ivoire.

8. The traders got to know, through their worldwide branches, the state of the real global economic sometimes before central banks. So they bet big against oil futures in 2008, and earning huge sums of cash.

9. They came to light only after Glencore went public, showing how much they have been making. So governments set up their own trading branches. The internet greatly levelled the playing field, eroding their information advantage. So they started buying mines and oil fields, becoming producers as well.

10. They have far reaching power: at one point Glencore sold bonds to support Kurdish rebels to buy their oil. But the Iraqi government intervened and took back control. So pensioners in America lost some of their savings.

11. In 2014, the American government strikes. Using secondary sanctions, it subpoenaed companies that violated its trade sanctions, even if they are in allies countries. So BNP Paribas suddenly sacked Trafigura.

12. Future challenges: 1. Deglobalization decreasing the volume of world trade. 2. Consumer preference for fair trade commodities, restricting the source of them. 3. Climate change, turning against the oil trade. 4. Victim of own success: broadcasting their success with IPOs, making other countries set up competitors. And China can still ignore US sanctions, trading directly with Iran.

13. During the Covid-19 recession in 2020, traders bought crude oil when it was dirt cheap, even though the future price was much higher. They stored the oil on giant ships, then they moor it around Singapore. When the Eastern economies picked up again, they were there to supply the needed oil again. So they earned big sums but provided the needed buyer-of-last-resort service. Otherwise lots of oil pumps would have gone bankrupt.

Such an eye opening book!
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,822 reviews1,383 followers
October 5, 2022
Fascinating for me having started my working career at Cargill and now involved with trade credit, political risk, energy and marine insurance

Max’s review here is so comprehensive that additional detail is not really needed but I found this an entertaining, well paced and informative book.
Profile Image for Anthony Lipmann.
Author 2 books4 followers
May 11, 2021

At the heart of The World for Sale, is a simple unspoken question. ‘Are all commodity traders crooks?’ As one of the breed myself, it is a question to which I would gladly seek the answer.
Javier Blas and Jack Farchy, both former journalists of the FT, and now both at Bloomberg, make a good fist of telling the story of commodity trading and what the world looks like viewed from oil well, mine, or metal, upwards. It’s not a pretty sight. At the heart of each tale is a buccaneer, a rough diamond, for whom there is no barrier except death and taxes (the latter of which is easily overcome).

The life cycle of these companies tends to mirror the life of a single trader – impatient in youth, mellowing in middle age, and spent by 60. We get the story of Philipp Brothers, an early 20th century trading phenomenon. The ceding of its power to its young-turk employee, Marc Rich, who, conforming to the thirty-year cycle, then cedes to Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore. It’s a plotline that in this case has not yet run its course. Perhaps, for all we know, Glasenberg will break the mould? He re-defined every other rule.

The also-ran characters are legion too – Vitol’s Ian Taylor, Trafigura’s Claude Dauphin, Cargill’s John Macmillan, Xstrata’s Mick Davis, Noble’s Richard Elman - and a host of names that mean almost nothing to the man in the street but are hard currency to commodity folk.

Why does the commodity sector matter and what significance, if any, does it have to those outside its confined world? Perhaps it is because oil, copper, aluminium, zinc, wheat, cotton, cobalt are the items which lie at the base of what we call society. There's just too much at stake.

Neither Blas, Farchy (or me, for that matter) are slow to list the charges at the commodities traders’ door – cartels, funding and propping up failed states, satisfying the proclivities of the leaders of failed states, breaking embargoes, enhancing the trade of polluting minerals (such as coal), off-setting risk to investors while guiding less risky deals closer to home, operating through shell companies via the treasure islands of Grand Cayman, BVI and others, domiciling head offices in low tax regions, bribery, and generally dealing with anyone and in anything without scruple so long as grand profits are in prospect.

I can’t imagine what the attraction is.

The story that is repeated most often here, and which lies at the heart of this account of crimes and misdemeanours, is the fatal attraction between a failed or failing state, kleptocracy or dictatorship, and a commodity trader with a shopping list. Nothing, it would appear, abhors a vacuum more than a merchant with bricks of cash.

When Jamaica runs out of funds to pay for its oil imports, it is Marc Rich who writes terms for the future delivery of bauxite and alumina that make the Treaty of Versailles look generous.* When Libya is in the midst of civil war, Ian Taylor of Vitol jets in under fire to the financial rescue of the Benghazi rebels in a deal to supply diesel and petrol in return for crude. When the crude fails to appear, Vitol becomes a lead creditor for the frozen overseas assets of the former Libyan regime ahead of the populace from whom it was defrauded. When the young Kabila returns to DRC it is with cash in his pocket as an advance on future cobalt.

In Russia, for example, the book suggests Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore is to be partly thanked for Mr Putin’s present good health and longevity, for it was at Russia’s weakest moment in 2014, with the rouble falling and the prospect of Russia defaulting on external debt repayments, that Glencore buys a stake in Rosneft. For this act of charity, Glasenberg is awarded ‘Russia’s Order of Friendship’.

In Cuba at different times both Trafigura and Vitol assist Castro by financing oil in return for sugar, nickel, cobalt and hotels. Perhaps the worst example in the entire book relates to the dumping of toxic waste by Trafigura in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 2006, close to where people lived. All for a deal, Trafigura had taken Mexican coker gasoline and to save on cost had converted the material onboard vessel pumping 36.2 tons of toxic waste into a separate hold. All countries had refused to discharge the cargo, and the only legitimate place that had accepted it wanted $700,000 for the neutralization. Using a front company, a deal was hatched in Ivory Coast to dispose of it for $20,000. Trafigura later claimed it did not know the goods would not be handled safely. The part of the story that always stuck in my mind at the time was the use of what has since been called a super injunction, forbidding reporting of the story. It seemed to me then that if the law could be used in such a way, all investigative journalism would be dead. In fact, as this book shows, it is alive and well and the list of deals and states referred to goes on – Iran, Chad, Kurdistan, Iraq, Serbia, Angola, Venezuela. Neither the weakness of states nor the tricks used to prop them up are entirely new – weak and mismanaged states and spendthrift sovereigns have turned to any means at their disposal throughout history. It was a similar infirmity that was exploited by the Fuggers in the 15th century to obtain rights to copper and silver mining in return for funding the wars of Maximilian I.

What seems like mystery to the man in the street might be less opaque if it was simply understood. Perhaps an appropriate analogy for the service commodity traders supply could be summed up as 'Wonga for nation states' - the same bonkers interest rates, followed by a perilous spiral into ever greater debt.

It is easy to blame the traders but in Zambia, a country I know a little about, you could say it was the policies of the upright bankers at The World Bank and IMF, wearing Hermes ties and fine suits, who pushed the country into the loving arms of the traders. It was their edict in 2000, while the country was in famine and the copper price was less than $1 per lb that forced the country to privatise at the point of a fiscal gun. And who came to the rescue? Glencore, First Quantum, Vedanta, ENRC and others. In Glencore’s case, copper mines and smelters were acquired into which they invested many millions, increasing production, modernising systems, installing environmental equipment, and creating a future hub for their trade routes out of DRC. This is not a story contained in the book but one I serve as an example of why leaping to judgment is complex.

Commentators and apologists for the trading fraternity often cite commodity people as the least worst option when considered against the mess states generally make of controlling national resources when undertaking it themselves. Take the former Soviet Union for example. Were the state-controlled foreign trade organizations charged with the import and export of commodities, and their pricing committees, a better way of running things? Did value reach the populace more advantageously via this route than as a result of traders fighting with each other for supplies and sales? (Despite the bribes and layers of cream siphoned off as commissions, are not the activities of commodity traders simply a method of handling a part of world economies that can never be captured within society’s norms?)

Blas and Farchy tell a racy story, as gripping as any other tale of misdeeds. Their narrative is amply backed up with detailed citations. Quotes from reticent traders are often published on guarantee of anonymity (but better in than out). Apart from one poor sod in America who gets banged up for his crimes, most of the rest get off scot-free, although a couple of them die from cancer before their time and one pair set up an Oxford University College to burnish their name. [First test for any undergraduate - read this book before taking up a place, and I wonder how many would still want to? Or shall we just encourage students to reserve opprobrium for figures safely tucked away on plinths or as busts?]

The only problem with the thesis of this book - that to be a trader is a crooked profession - is the assumption that psychopathic narcissistic megalomania is the only imperative. I’m here to tell you that perhaps it is not.

It doesn’t make as many headlines, but it might disappoint both journalists and billionaires to know that there are journeymen in the commodities business who seek fulfilment by delivering metals, wheat, oil, or whatever, to customers without cornering markets and without inducement. There is satisfaction – believe it or not – in assisting end-users to obtain delivery of furnace or refinery-ready raw materials in price and on time without fuss. There is profit and a healthy living to be had by having happy customers and helping them across the road rather than pushing them into the path of an oncoming truck.

Why do those of us who spend a life in commodities do it? The truth is, we are no surer of the reasons than those who do not. But, at our small trading company at least, occupied with minor metals, caught in the slipstream vortex of the commodity trade, we feel a sale on time and in price leads to trust and further business. If we earn enough to put food on the table, that is good enough.

Do we lack ambition? Certainly, on the scale of the sultans of trade delineated in this book - we do. World domination of the zinc or copper markets is not our goal. However, it is also true that were it left to me, mankind would perhaps not have discovered the wheel.

What The World For Sale tells us about commodity traders is that, unleashed, they are like wolves. They are born wolves and remain true to their yellow-eyed selves, and as such it is best to know what you are before you enter the business of commodities. Wolf or lamb? It would seem both are required. One to be eaten. The other to eat.

When I was young, I remember asking my father, who was a metal merchant, why he wasn’t richer (he was actually moderately wealthy and had made what he earned from nothing). His answer was, ‘I never wanted to walk over dead bodies’.

The World for Sale is about those who did.

* [The period of Marc Rich's involvement in Jamaica was preceded by offers of Soviet assistance which could have resulted in another Cuba and another U.S./Soviet proxy confrontation. Some argue that Marc Rich's rescue package averted this potentially even worse outcome.]

Published: Lord Copper AND Lipmann Walton & Co Ltd websites 21.04.21

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Profile Image for Maćkowy .
322 reviews84 followers
September 4, 2023
Ciężka to była książka, niezwykle się z nią mozoliłem. Cały czas mnie kusiło, żeby odłożyć ją na kilka dni i poczytać coś lżejszego (coś dobrze napisanego), ale wiedziałem, że jeśli to zrobię, to bardzo prawdopodobnie do niej nie wrócę. Świat na sprzedaż, to hardkorowa książka o ekonomii i geopolityce, gdzie ciekawe ukrywa się w wielkim (i zbędnym) morzu biogramów. Napisana jest chaotycznie, a mechanizmy, które pozwoliły pewnym ludziom bez sumień dorobić się miliardów są opisane hermetycznym językiem, przy czym podczas lektury cały czas miałem wrażenie, że autorzy musieli ostro lawirować, żeby nie narażać się na pozwy handlowych gigantów, w wyniku czego całość wyszła bardzo ciężkostrawna.

Tak czy inaczej cieszę się, że domęczyłem Świat na sprzedaż do końca, bo to wartościowa lektura, pokazuje mechanizmy, jakie sterują światową ekonomią. Tłumaczy w jaki sposób Rosja trzyma się tak dobrze pomimo licznie nakładanych na nią od 2014 roku sankcji gospodarczych, czemu rewolucja Fidela dawno nie zdechła i czemu apartheid trwał tak długo.
Profile Image for Leif.
1,690 reviews89 followers
April 3, 2022
Would I say that this tale of the greed and blithe arrogance of a few increasingly powerful men reads like a thriller? No, I would not - but I didn't want a thriller, I wanted facts. Happily then, it also does not read as a straightforward inditement of social failure and narcissism. Instead, Blas and Farchy deliver on their brief: a journalistic investigation into the thriving intellects that shaped the threads along which resources are routed, societies are milked if not bilked, and futures are traded. An unrefined lesson in how the dystopia in which we live grew and metastasized.
Profile Image for Belston Campfield.
Author 1 book62 followers
December 1, 2021
Hell of a read. I'd always wondered about the commodities business and this book exposes the shady deals that middlemen who trade physical commodities--and made billions in the process--make with dictators around the world for access to things like grain, oil, metals, etc.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
990 reviews135 followers
November 22, 2021
A sharp and brisk journalistic account that explains the surprising rise of commodities traders, the small group of people and private businesses who buy and barter grain, aluminum, zinc, and, most importantly, oil around the globe. Although hardly on the radar of most businesses in the 1950s, by the 1970s they were changing geopolitics, and by the 2010s a few small trading houses were earning billions a year.

The book centers on the trade in oil, and especially, the genealogy of one firm. Ludwig Jessleson was one of the many Jews escaping Europe in 1937 when he landed a job trading scrap metal at Philipp Brothers in New York. He turned the company into a global behemoth in trading every commodity. Marcell Reich, later Marc Rich, also fled Europe as a young boy in the 1930s, and soon joined Philipp Brothers, where his indefatigable work ethic took him from the mail room to near the top of the firm. But when Jessleson refused to give him $500,00 a year, he and his friend Pinky Green created Marc Rich + Co, and were soon earning billions. It became the center for oil trades after the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, including by rerouting Iranian oil secretly through the Israeli Ashkelon pipeline. By the early 1990s, Rich, under indictment in the US, trapped in Switzerland, and hurting from a failed zinc corner, refused to concede to the financial demands of a younger group, which then formed Trafigure (Claude Dauphin) and Glencore (Ivan Glasenberg), which then became two of the biggest trading companies in the world. Glencore's IPO in 2011, so far the only one from a major trading firm, brought the scale of their profits to light.

One of the real, but unstated, takeaways from the book is that the traders benefited from socialism. Previously, integrated production and distribution companies dominated the commodities markets. But, whenever there were nationalizations or confiscations, traders stepped in to help the countries market their goods abroad. Cargill made a fortune shipping US grain to the Communist world, including during the "Great Grain Robbery" of 1972, when the Soviet Union purchased $1 billion of US grain on the sly. Philipp Brothers, Mabanaft, and John Deuss were all outside the "Seven Sisters" oil oligopoly, so they could sell the post-1955 Soviet oil boom to the world without undermining their own assets. Marc Rich benefited when Jamaica nationalized its bauxite mines, since he could provide the early finance and trade to move product after the others shut him out (he later helped finance the bobsled team that became famous in "Cool Runnings"). When Guyana in 1971 nationalized the bauxite industry, Phillipp Brothers could help move it out. In Cuba, Marc Rich inserted itself into the trade between Soviet oil and Cuban sugar, and, after the Soviet collapse, financed the new oil purchases. Later, the oil giant Vitol traded continued Cuban investments, and, when the government couldn't repay, helped finance the new Parque Central Hotel in Havana to recoup its earnings. It is more than a little ironic that this most swaggering of capitalist sectors was built on a legacy of socialization.

The book does a masterful job pulling back the curtain on these shadowy businesses, which unquestionably do some good, but also, clearly, facilitate much bad, from the socialism of earlier days to moving oil in the UN Oil-for-Food Scandal to avoiding sanctions today. It demonstrates how journalistic doggedness and an open eye can find new and worthwhile stories.
Profile Image for Marika_reads.
285 reviews330 followers
July 30, 2023

Traderzy to specjaliści od handlu zasobami ziemi takimi jak zboże, ropa, metale czy minerały. I właśnie o nich i firmach, które stworzyli czy w których pracowali jest reportaż Javiera Blasa i Jacka Farchy. Co ciekawe przytaczając nazwy kilku z tych przedsiębiorstw - Vitol, Philipp Brothers, Trafigura - czy samych traderów Ivan Glasenberg, Ian Taylor, Andy Hall pewnie zdecydowana większość z was nigdy wcześniej o nich nie słyszała. A to środowisko mające ogromny wpływ na politykę i ekonomię całego świata.
Jak? Ano tak, że np. dostarczając paliwa rebeliantom podczas wojny libijskiej przyczynili się do obalenia i zabicia Kaddafiego, ale niekoniecznie do zaprzestania walk i wojny domowej. Albo pomagajac Putinowi przetrwać sankcje i utrzymać władzę dzięki akcji „ropa za pożyczkę” (liczoną nie w milionach a miliardach). Macki traderów sięgają pałaców prezydenckich i władców krajów komunistycznych czy demokracji. Bez skrupułów robili interesy z dyktatorami i oskarżonymi o zbrodnie przeciwko ludzkości.
Reportaż opowiada o tym jak handlarze zasobami kształtują historię i zmieniają jej bieg. Autorzy zwracają również uwagę na to jak traderzy wykorzystywali słabości gospodarcze mniej rozwiniętych i biedniejszych krajow, a swoimi decyzjami powodowali kryzysy żywnościowe. Fortuny tych gigantów są wiec zbudowane na cierpieniu innych. Wielkie pieniądze, korupcja, spekulacje bezwzględność, a wszystko to żyjąc w cieniu.
„Świat na sprzedaż” to interesujacy i niezwykle merytoryczny reporaż, ale mam z nią jeden problem - tych informacji bylo dla mnie za duzo. Sam początek niezmiernie mnie wciągnął, ale im dalej tym coraz bardziej uciekałam myślami i autorzy nie potrafili utrzymać mojej uwagi. Oczywiscie to bardzo subiektywne, mnie po prostu bardziej interesuje sama geopolityka, a tutaj oprocz niej sporo o gospodarce i ekonomii
Profile Image for Nathan.
22 reviews99 followers
May 17, 2023
The World For Sale elucidates the opaque and lucrative world of commodity trading. What struck me is how few players are involved in shaping the flow of resources we consume as a civilization. There is also a lot of business acumen displayed from this segment of the finance world. The authors have been able to capture the intricacies and lucrative extravagances of this business. In my view capitalism is a mix of self-interest, opportunism and a hyper attentiveness in fulfilling the market in pursuit of material gains. However, there is sometimes a clear disassociation from ethics and human rights in this process, which is evident in the often cynical and win at all costs ethos of traders.
Profile Image for Alex Anderson.
321 reviews6 followers
May 11, 2023
The authors are a couple of financial reporters and the book seems to be a collage of articles written over their careers.

Some interesting anecdotes and backstories on guys who’ve made their fortunes buying, selling, wheeling, dealing, bribing and basically doing whatever it takes to make a buck…or billions of them.

Lots of derogatory dissing of the moral status of a merchant class who saw their rise to wealth and power off the backs of inhabitants of the emerging market economies.

Not much of a surprise, enough intellectual calories to fuel an essay, but probably not a whole book on the subject.
Profile Image for Brahm.
481 reviews54 followers
May 12, 2023
A hybrid of Michael Lewis' wall street/financial thrillers (Moneyball, The Big Short), Peter Zeihan's geopolitics books, and just a small dash of Vaclav Smil's energy and materials resources. Anyone who likes stories of big, bold deals going right (or wrong) won't be able to put this one down.

Absolutely enthralling and eye-opening as to how materials move around the world and how - this will sound basic - traders facilitate trade.

One of the fascinating learnings was how (current & former) communist states are forced to participate on the open, globalist, capitalist market for materials they don't have at home.

I definitely feel like I know more about how the world works after reading this one.
Profile Image for Dorota.
206 reviews
August 19, 2023
Warto! W ogóle nie znałam świata traderów towarowych, ale ta książka bardzo otworzyła mi oczy na ich wpływy.
Profile Image for Wael Gamal.
38 reviews102 followers
April 16, 2023
تحقيق صحفي رائع يخترق واحدة من أكثر مناطق الاقتصاد العالمي إظلامًا: تجارة السلع العالمية. جدير بالقراءة لأي شخص يسعى لفهم العالم المعاصر. الترجمة سلسة لولا بعض الهنات في بعض المصطلحات الاقتصادية والمالية.
June 12, 2021
Commodity traders, not the white collar ones, have been around since the dawn of the 20th century. The world resources were controlled by 7 commodity trader till the 1930s, but that soon was to change. Ever since the US federal government took charge of private oil companies, the prices of oil began to rise.
With the ever rising demand for oil, it was upto to a select group of people to assume the role of a supplier.
In come commodity traders, filling the coffers of kleptocrats for oil, financer of rebels for pulses and an undeniably important cog in world economy.
This book doesn't glorify the workings of commodity traders, which it shouldn't because most of them have a way to bend the law, it simply brings out a world of select individuals whose earnings and profits were never discussed before. The businesses of commodity traders has always been elusive, even though their earnings can easily topple fortune 500 companies.
The apolitical nature and the drive to earn profits make commodity traders so special. This book highlights these with vivid stories and anecdotes that I will cherish the most.
Profile Image for Arup.
215 reviews9 followers
March 28, 2021
Must read if you are interested in commodities - even if you only look at securities and not physical. This is a first of a kind peek into the modus operandi of commodity traders and is replete with amazing stories.
Profile Image for JJ.
98 reviews
June 6, 2021
An overview of the lucrative, shadowy, and hyper-masculine world of global commodities trading. The book proceeds chronologically. Chapter 1 briefly surveys the swashbucklers who opened up new trading routes for oil and metals and crops in the immediate years following World War II. Chapters 2-5 deal with the immensely profitable opportunities created for traders by the energy crisis and wave of nationalizations in the 1970s and 1980s, with the stories of Marc Rich and John Duess featuring prominently, among others. In the mid 1980s, the commodities derivatives trade took off, offering traders even more opportunities to profit via speculation on future prices. Chapters 6-7 centers on the effects of the USSR's collapse; upstarts, seasoned traders, and gangsters descended upon the landscape of the "wild east", looking to make a quick buck. The stories in chapters 8-11 are shaped by China's astounding economic growth in the early 21st century, and the booming commodities "supercycle" that accompanied, which helped firms like Glencore, Vitol, Cargill, and Trafigura become the world-shaping giants that they are today. Chapters 12-13 conclude the book, discussing recent developments in the industry: reduced informational advantage, heightened scrutiny from the regulators/the media, environmentalist sentiment, and wariness of state-owned companies to be fleeced any further as the details of traders' ridiculously-large profits come to light.

The book is well-researched and written in a gripping journalistic style, which made it hard for me to put down. Commodities trading is an interesting and perhaps fitting lens through which to tell the history of the past 50 years. The content is pretty audacious; things like secret pipelines in the Middle East and shammy Burundian embassies and fixers and tankers disappearing in the middle of the ocean seem like the stuff of Bond movies. But reading (and enjoying) it all made me feel very, very dirty. After all, these men represent greed in its most pure and terrible form. It's pretty disgusting to know the details of how for several decades, a very small group of middlemen raked in billions on a yearly basis with an utter disregard for anything except money, propping up regimes like apartheid South Africa and Saddam Hussein and countless African kleptocrats, such as those in Congo and Chad, engaging in widespread deceit, and in many cases, recklessly endangering the lives of ordinary people. Yet, the book argues, even with the challenges that they face today, the commodities traders aren't going away anytime soon. What does it say about our world that there is a vital role for such people to play in it?
Profile Image for Alok Kejriwal.
Author 3 books576 followers
June 20, 2021
When I was 16, a dear school friend first told me about Marc Rich. This book taught me everything about him, the CRAZY, INSANE world of Commodity trading & the MAD people who operate in this realm.

This book is like a DEEP Gold mine? (I've never been in one). Once you get in, you have no clue where you are & getting out takes hours. It is an exhausting read but amazingly informative.

Why you must read:

- A (terrifying) reminder of how morals & ethics can evaporate when Profits & Business opportunities become irresistible.

- The incessant energy of entrepreneurs & their undying will to succeed.

- How Nations were saved & manipulated by commodity traders.

- This book taught me what I would (personally) NEVER do in business.

- Quotes:

- Marc Rich + Co made so much money in the oil crisis of 1979 that it would have ranked as one of America’s 10 most profitable companies.

- The Cargill family contains 14 billionaires – more than any other family in the world.

- X would fly 1st class, booking a full row of seats to keep with him several large suitcases full of paperwork that he always carried with him everywhere.

- "Always have something to sell."

- The Dutch were wonderful, but they didn’t want to work outside nine to five. That ruled them out quite quickly.

- Walking into Glencore’s headquarters at 8.30 a.m. would get you a sarcastic ‘good afternoon’ greeting :)

- By the mid-2000s, Africa had become a place where the commodities that no one else wanted could be disposed of.

- ‘It’s a business that shouldn’t be public,’

- PepsiCo briefly became one of the world’s largest naval powers when it agreed that, in exchange for the Pepsi it was selling to the Soviet Union, it would be paid with 17 Soviet submarines, a cruiser, a frigate and a destroyer. :)

Must read (5-6 hours minimum)

Profile Image for Wej.
163 reviews7 followers
July 31, 2023
A story of commodities written by economic journalists as if it was a thriller! This was a fantastic read. Earlier this year I started reading The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power which covered somewhat similar topics throughout earlier periods, but I found it a bit of a slog. This book however is a page turner. You get drawn into stories of larger-than-life characters, their incredible money making schemes, all that with a clearly drawn and accurate geostrategic context. It is a top choice and is highly recommended. No wonder it received many accolades.
Profile Image for Luciano.
198 reviews251 followers
July 23, 2021
Probably the most comprehensive account of the previously obscure world of commodity trading houses. An excellent combination of deep research and readability, helped by the crazy stories that the quest for resources in dark corners of the world provides. It probably focuses too much on the oil industry (which is only natural given its size and geopolitical relevance), but it also touches metals, grains, and other agricultural products (a likely nice complementary reading should be Merchants of Grain).
Profile Image for Nilesh Jasani.
1,020 reviews157 followers
May 29, 2022
The highly informative book on an essential and less-addressed market/economic sector has everything right except the tone.

The stories that start from a small group of traders in the seventies and lead to the activities of the current giants are disjointed and yet compelling. Most of them are not well known, like the stories of famous bond or equity investors. The authors are right to claim that these working-in0the-shadows individuals and firms have had a larger impact on global affairs than their celebrated public market contemporaries who dominate the financial journals.

The authors do a good job throwing light on the many murky activities of these entities as they amassed staggering wealth. The authors rightfully claim that commodity traders alter the course of the lives of many millions globally and the political and geopolitical history of many nations.

Nevertheless, the book lacks balance. Perhaps, it is enormously difficult to provide balance while discussing this field of goods essential to human lives and with actors and practices that have been downright abominable from the time immemorial.

Let's start with a few undisputed facts. We all need resources - from food to energy to metals and others - to lead a decent life. What we need is not evenly distributed around the planet. Monopolists of all types have tried to corner the production of these resources from the era of the feudal lords to the miners and energy barons using unsavory means. It was easy for all these producers to recognize the power of the larger size (or the ownership of a higher amount of whatever resource they were in) in their quests to control the market. This led to power grabs, corruption, and exploitative production practices of all kinds by the most powerful producers, with some joining politics and others moving into commodities after they got their political powers.

Our history and literary books are filled with the events caused by commodity-control methods even to this present day. We all wish we could banish all these producers out of regular modern circles and still continue with a good economic life. The utopian fantasy - reflected in the book - is that politicians from a group of large, rich, democratic nations would come together to clean up the commodity production space. In this dream world, all the much-needed resources are within democracies, produced in the most sustainable and moderately profitable ways without any exploitative labor practices and ideally without monopolies.

It is important to keep striving for such a world, but it is equally important to understand that we are not in such a utopia. Some idealists' overzealous bans, sanctions, or price/trade controls could inflict more miseries on the consumers and users. Practically, intermediaries - like those discussed in the book - will provide those layers between producers that nobody wants to be seen dealing with and the users who need resources for their daily life.

Ever since the advent of modern trading intermediaries and financialization started by them, the world has seen fewer shortages of commodities than ever before. Debatably, prices have also been less volatile, with global consumers allowed to have a higher proportion of income left for non-commodity expenses. The trading companies have somewhat counterbalanced producer monopolies across commodities. As high as their absolute gains look, as reported in the book, we need more studies to show whether intermediary profit margins are up or down on a long trend and whether consumer surplus is growing or shrinking versus the producers because of these trading companies' activities.

One should not condone many acts of the trading companies. Those who violate laws should pay for their acts. The book is right about these. It is not right - at least in its tone - where it fails to discuss the important, practical role played by these intermediaries in our world. Commodity companies will continue to exist in the coming decades. They may have different names, with most players going through the inevitable personal boom-bust cycles despite the aggregate profits on an uptrend. In a world geopolitically divided, their roles will become even more critical to provide the veneer of political acceptance to sanction- and countersanctions imposing classes. They will also come under far more scrutiny because of political divisions, ESG/climate reasons, and the return of the resource price inflation.
Profile Image for Tuncay Özdemir.
240 reviews48 followers
April 6, 2023
Petrol, maden ve tahıl gibi değerli emtiaların ticaretini yapan kişi ve firmaların bugüne kadar gözlerden uzak aktivitelerine ışık tutmak için yazılmış bir kitap.

Bu emtiaların ticareti çok büyük ölçeklerde gerçekleştiği için bu tüccarların aldıkları riskler ve sonucunda elde ettikleri gelirler devasa boyutlarda. Bu kazançları, belki arz ve talep mantığınca ekonominin temel ilkeleriyle açıklayabiliriz ancak ülkelerin ve rejimlerin ayakta kalmasını sağlayacak denli önemli malları önemli ölçeklerde alıp sattıkları için aslında bu kişiler doğrudan sosyal, ekonomik, politik ve çevresel birçok yan etkilere yol açıyorlar. Ve çoğunlukla halka kapalı olmayı tercih ettikleri için de aktiviteleri bugüne dek gözlerden ırak kalmayı başarmış.

Bu firma ve kişilerin çoğunlukla daha fazla para kazanmak için çok agresif davrandığını, etik sınırlarda olunan her konuda yasalarda boşluk varsa, o boşluklardan faydalanarak kar elde etmeyi tercih ettiğini görüyoruz. Tabii bu durum iletişim teknolojilerinin artması, uluslararası denetim ve yaptırımın yaygınlaşması, bilgi ediniminde tekelleşmenin zorlaşması ve ticari partnerlerin de bu muazzam karlara uyanması ile yavaştan dönüşüyor gibi görünüyor. (En azından Batılı firmalar için. Belki bunlar yerlerini daha az regüle edilecek Doğulu/Çinli firmalara da bırakıyor olabilir.)

ABD’nin dolar sistemi ile ticaret üstünde nasıl korkutucu bir güç olduğu, İsviçre’nin her türlü ambargoyu delmede ve gri parayı kendine çekmede nasıl bir truva atı olduğu bu kitapla daha bir net anlaşılabilir.

İlginç bir okuma gerçekten. Bu kadar ambargoya rağmen İran, Venezuela gibi ülkeler nasıl ayakta kalıyor, dönüm noktalarında kimler nasıl ve ne şekilde ekonomik avantaj sağlıyor, dünyanın en çok dolar milyarderi hangi firmadan hangi koşullarda çıkmış gibi meraklarınız varsa tavsiye edilir.
Profile Image for Julius.
230 reviews13 followers
January 5, 2023
Javier Blas plantea una obra enciclopédica, una historia cronológica sobre los hilos que ha seguido la historia, la economía, y sobre todo, una serie de personajes muy destacados, para terminar siendo los reyes en el comercio de materias primas, y estar detrás de la financiación de países y de otros trapos bastante oscuros.

El libro comienza en el siglo XX, con el colapso del monopolio de las 7 Hermanas, que se trata de las empresas en las que obligaron a dividirse a Standard Oil, propiedad del todopoderoso Rockefeller. Una serie de habilidosos empresarios comenzaron atreviéndose a negociar con países con los que otros no se atrevían a hacerlo. A ser audaces, rozando la ilegalidad, la ruina económica y el ansia de poder. Ahí fue donde los comerciantes de materias primas comenzaron a ser muy muy influyentes en la financiación de países y a ejercer un papel sin el cual los gobiernos no podían funcionar (sobre todo sin petróleo).

Posteriormente, pasamos a un estado de negociación de materias primas mucho más financiarizado, basado en futuros y en activos en Bolsa. A continuación, la historia avanza hacia la conquista de las materias primas de China.

Los primeros capítulos del libro eran interesantes, pero no se me han hecho particularmente atractivos. Ha sido a partir de cuando el libro ha entrado en acontecimientos que yo ya conozco más, cuando se me ha hecho muy interesante y se me ha hecho difícil parar de leer. Sobre todo, a partir de la guerra de Iraq, de la del Golfo, el régimen de Cuba, etc.

El libro logra perfectamente su propósito, que es hacer entender al lector cómo hemos llegado aquí, y que probablemente nunca sabremos toda la verdad sobre los tratos que han hecho estas empresas con países bastante sospechosos. Está cargado de datos, y a veces se ha hecho un poco pesado. Pero los últimos capítulos, más de actualidad, eran muy muy golosos.

Por todo ello, 4⭐.
Profile Image for Sebastian.
124 reviews12 followers
August 1, 2021
The World For Sale is a portrait of the commodity trading world, composed of vignettes from legendary firms and their top traders -- Ian Taylor at Vitol, Ivan Glasenberg and Willy Strothotte at Glencore, Claude Dauphin at Trafigura, Marc Rich, Cargill, Xstrata, and more. So on some level it's also an adventure book: stories of negotiations with Kurdish warlords, narrow escapes from Chadian prisons, and fierce scrambles for control of resources in post-Soviet Russia.

When I said that Fitzroy Maclean was the last European with mojo I was not quite right. The commodity traders actually had (have?) some vitality left in them.


Blas and Farchy start by explaining what commodity traders do. At the highest level of abstraction:
- Commodity goods are produced by producer;
- Buyers exist elsewhere in the world;
- Commodity traders profit by identifying opportunities to match supply and demand (particularly where the gaps in price between seller and buyer are greatest), and facilitating the transaction. In some cases they may also e.g. provide some financing for the producer to support investment in resource extraction. [16]

Given that profits are greatest where supplier prices are low or buyers are willing to pay a premium, it's perhaps unsurprising that commodity traders frequently are dealing with counterparties in the underbelly of the international order: warlords desperate to sell resources to finance civil conflict, or on the demand side, pariahs sitting isolated by the rest of the world.

The first trader we meet is Ludwig Jesselson of Philipp Brothers -- the premier commodity trading firm of the early postwar era. Exemplary of the pattern outlined above, Jesselson makes his name (and fortune) by navigating Tito's Communist Yugoslavia and in 1950, brokering the annual sale of over $20M worth of metals from Jugometal (the state mining monopoly) to the United States [28-29]. Indeed, many of the earliest titans of the commodity trading world primarily exploited the thin connectivity across the Iron Curtain to identify and exploit arbitrage opportunities.

Marc Rich comes on to the scene in the 1970s and 1980s first as a trader at Philipp Bros, then at his own firm (Marc Rich + Co), pioneering a set of new trading strategies as the USSR and concept of the Eastern Bloc entered its twilight. Most notably, he launched sales of oil to apartheid South Africa from Iran in the 80s. Woops! As an American citizen, this violated sanctions implemented by the Carter administration in the wake of the Tehran hostage crisis. Thankfully, Rich's wife would later develop an avid interest in the Clinton Library and Hilary Clinton's senate campaign -- and Bill Clinton would offer Rich a pardon on his last day in office. The Clintons seem dirtier and dirtier the more I learn. [94-99]

We get more similar stories through the 90s. There's a rich section on the excitement and the violence of Yeltsin's post-Soviet Russia. Ian Taylor of Vitol makes a small fortune getting oil to Slobodan Milosevic in the Yugoslav wars [166-167]. Where-ever there is calamity, there's a good opportunity for these commodity traders to make money.

In the mid 90s, Marc Rich + Co (the dominant firm at the time) splits in two to give rise to Glencore and Trafigura and initiates a third age of commodity trading. A cautionary tale, the collapse ultimately stems from an increasingly isolated and distracted Rich's unwillingness to give carry to his top-performing traders. Blind to the obvious problems of not incentivizing his best people, Rich is put into early retirement when Willy Strothotte and Claude Dauphin break away with chunks of the Marc Rich + Co team behind them to form Glencore and Trafigura respectively.

For the remainder of the 90s and into the 2000s and 2010s, the theme remains the same: traders that profit selling oil to Castro's Cuba, buying minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more. Glencore and others also begin to plow some profits back into vertical integration -- actually buying up more and more of the developing world mines they are buying from in the first place, ensuring more durable supply and extracting additional profit along the way.


Economic entanglement creates foreign interests in domestic politics. When a trader need oil wells to produce or mines to work, there's now a strong financial interest in supporting whichever political leader can ensure supply stays online.

Remember Thomas Friedman and globalization? Like many things the New York Times has pushed over the years, that didn't age well.

Washington understood well the peril of foreign entanglements. We should too, there's sharks in the water!
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