The industry’s real story, at least as told here, reads more like a globe-spanning corporate thriller, full of intrigue and double-dealing. The traders jet in where no one else will go, signing deals to ship oil to Libyan rebels, produce aluminium within the Soviet Union, and befriend dictators in order to boost the cobalt trade. Inevitably, when the matter of ‘commissions’ (sometimes in the form of briefcases stuffed with cash) arises, the traders do not flinch — especially since, the book reveals, those foreign bribes were until recently a tax-deductible expense in the businesses’ Swiss headquarters.
There is an extensive cast of larger-than-life characters. Some will already be familiar, such as the recently deceased Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister who orchestrated the Opec cartel in the 1970s; or Marc Rich, the godfather of modern commodity trading. Many are much less well known, but equally colourful: Nikolai Belousov, for instance, the ingenious Soviet bureaucrat who managed to buy up 30 per cent of the 1972 US wheat harvest at the height of the cold war in what became billed as “The Great Grain Robbery”.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is that it has been written at all. The first rule of commodities trading is you don’t talk about commodities trading. The authors recount how they think the agricultural trading company Louis Dreyfus, whose heir Kyril Louis-Dreyfus is the new owner of Sunderland Football Club, deals with journalists. It provides the email address and phone number of an executive for reporters to contact, but neither is answered quickly. “When the executive finally answered the phone, he said that, yes, he had seen our emails. Why, then, had he not responded? His lack of response, he replied, should have been seen as a form of response. Then he hung up.” Tracking down some of the biggest names in the business to their German castles and stud farms and persuading them to talk is a rare scoop.