Who Really Owns the World? Meet the Merchants of Power You’ve Never Heard Of

Who Really Owns the World? Meet the Merchants of Power You’ve Never Heard Of

Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources offers a probing look at one of the most overlooked sectors in modern global markets and geopolitics.

Marc Rich, by contrast, surpassed his former employer in profitably within a few years. His future (mis)adventures, through his firm, would become legendary. He saved Jamaica’s government from assured collapse by serving as a bank of last resort and one time delivering 300,000 barrels of oil within twenty-four hours, generating “goodwill” that translated into lucrative deals. This included a ten-year contract for the island’s alumina (an intermediary step from transforming bauxite into commercial aluminum) at an effective 25 percent below typical contract terms, just as his firm effectively cornered the market, delivering fantastical returns. (Rich + Co’s successor, Glencore, found similar success in Jamaica in later years via clever contract dealing: between 2004 and 2006, Kingston “would have received $370 million in additional revenue if it had been selling its alumina on the spot market and not to Glencore.”) He supplied South Africa’s apartheid government with oil, at one point indirectly instructing the captain of an oil tanker to simply erase the name of the vessel so it could bypass an embargo. Rich even bribed a number of officials from the African nation of Burundi so he could set up one of his most profitable ventures: the Compagnie Burundaise de Commerce, or Cobuco for short.

The plot surrounding the compagnie was classic Rich. Cobuco was nominally a trading company based in Brussels with a single mission: keeping Burundi supplied with oil. If one looked into the company, everything seemed above board: it was a 50-50 joint venture between Marc Rich + Co and the Burundian government, with the company’s constitution having been approved by the country’s parliament. If you called its offices, a “Monsieur Ndolo” would answer the phone. All this seems clean, except for a small detail: why would a small, dirt-poor, landlocked country—only slightly larger than the state of Maryland, with so little oil consumption that “even one tanker of crude would be enough to meet its needs for more than six years”—need a wholly dedicated oil trading company to begin with?

As Blas and Farchy detail, after securing the real story from “Ndolo” himself, the entire venture was essentially a money-printing scheme for the benefit of Marc Rich and Co. Cobuco, nominally representing Burundi, secured a contract for crude OPEC oil (around $27 to $28 a barrel, well below the market price of between $30 to $35) from Iran, with payment deferred for two years (essentially amounting to an interest-free loan). Officially, the oil would be delivered by Marc Rich + Co tankers to Mombasa, Kenya, where it would be refined and then trucked into Burundi. In practice, the oil was diverted to the international market and sold at a markup, securing Marc Rich + Co somewhere between $40 to $70 million in profits (“Monsieur Ndolo” isn’t as sure of the figure any more), with the deferred payment (i.e., the interest-free two-year loan) being invested in the money market for interest rates close to 20 percent, netting an additional $42 million (“Monsieur Ndolo” was very sure about this figure). As for Burundi? They were paid only twenty cents per barrel for their service, though “Ndolo” won’t disclose whether this money went to the state treasury or, more likely, into the pockets of various officials. Stoked by this success, Rich doubled down; by the end of the 1980s, his company had another four or five similar ventures across the African continent.

Eventually though, Rich’s luck ran out. The U.S. government came at him with a vengeance—the consequence for defying oil embargos, not to mention engaging in tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering, etc.—prompting him to flee to Switzerland. With his partners retired, Rich ended up firmly in charge of his firm. He was subsequently remiss in his management and—irony of ironies, given the context for his original departure from Phillip Brothers—the compensation of his subordinates. By 1993, the situation became untenable. The company’s former head of oil trading, a Frenchman by the name of Claude Dauphin, executed a rather Rich-like move, leading a number of traders into exile. The group would form a new commodity trading company called Trafigura, which exists to this day (and has developed a reputation as colorful as Rich’s). For those who remained, another few months of office politics yielded fruit: by 1994, Marc Rich was overthrown and ejected, forced into a relatively quiet retirement save for his shocking pardon by President Bill Clinton on the latter’s last day in office.

As for Rich’s former trading house, its members sought a new name. An unnamed consultant eventually proposed one: a contraction of the word global, energy, commodities, and resources. And so, Marc Rich + Co became Glencore International. A new generation of commodity traders had come to power, and their timing could not have possibly been better.

THE SECOND half of The World for Sale covers events from Marc Rich’s downfall to roughly around 2021. There are plenty of tales of the exploits of traders, Glencore in particular, that make for interesting, compelling, and one could even say scandalous reading. The insights provided are informative to all who hold any level of interest in contemporary geopolitics, economic developments, the use of power, and so forth.

The backdrop upon which all these take place, however, is arguably the more interesting story—and is more relevant for ongoing events. Two momentous changes in international affairs dominate the rest of the book.

The first is the fall of the USSR, described by Blas and Farchy as “the biggest closing-down sale in history,” with lasting consequences that matter now, at this very moment, more than ever before. After all, it is the connections made between Russian oligarchs—and later on, the highest reaches of the Russian government—and the commodity traders that keeps Russia in business. Behind the scenes of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, at least at the time of this writing, commodity traders are dealing with the Kremlin and providing Moscow with an invaluable economic lifeline.

The collapse of the centralized Soviet system meant that commodity producers and refiners were left without orders from Moscow: how much of so-and-so material should be extracted or produced, where should it be shipped, for how much money, etc. Some individuals though, taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms—primarily, the Law on Socialist Enterprises of 1987—had already built the foundations for future success: they had created “cooperatives” (essentially, small businesses) that could buy and sell goods without going through the Soviet state. Commodity traders leaped at this chance to bypass Moscow. Consider David Reuben, co-founder of commodity trader Trans-World: in May 1992, acting on the word of a visitor to his office, he would fly to distant Krasnoyarsk in Siberia to visit the largest aluminum smelter on Earth. There, he found that the plant’s manager “was worried because he didn’t have enough money to pay for the town’s food supply. On the spot, Reuben agreed to advance him money, to be repaid in aluminum.” Within a short time, Trans-World would take full advantage of the Russian government’s privatization, buying stakes in the country’s three largest aluminum smelters, becoming a “dominant player” in the country’s aluminum industry. By the end of their adventures in Russia, the Reuben brothers would become filthy rich; as of 2021, they are, separately, among the top-five richest individuals in the UK.

As Blas and Farchy note, the lessons imparted by commodity traders (to say nothing of the profits made possible via the trading they enabled) gave rise to the Russian oligarchs.

The partnering-up of the commodity traders and the men who would become Russia’s new elite had wide-ranging consequences. The commodity traders were on hand to show the early oligarchs how to export their goods, helping them earn seed capital that allowed them to buy up large swathes of the Russian economy as it was privatised. They linked the Russians to the world of Western finance, helping in some cases teach them the tricks of the tax havens and offshore shells that commodity traders had been employing for decades.

These ties are enduring. For example, Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum tycoon who started off working with Trans-World, teamed up with Glencore—the latter provided $100 million in financing and resources for Deripaska to put together his aluminum empire (and eventually, monopoly), Rusal. Glencore’s CEO, Ivan Glasenberg, courted Deripaska as a personal friend, going to football matches with him at Stamford Bridge (in London) along with fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich. These connections paid off in 2012 when Igor Sechin, one of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, pushed for the consolidation of Russian oil assets under the control of Rosneft, the state oil giant. Sechin gave Glasenberg and Ian Taylor of Vitol a call, and the two of them put together a whopping $10 billion in financing in exchange for future oil supplies. Since then, Glencore has constantly come to the rescue of Putin’s government, most notably in 2016, when the company convinced Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund to partake in an $11 billion deal to acquire part of the Russian government’s stake in Rosneft. For his service, Glasenberg, along with six others, was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin himself.