Book review: The World for Sale
Javier Blas and Jack Farchy reveal commodity trading to be the ‘wildest, dirtiest and riskiest business on the planet’
Many people think that the raw materials which make our lives so comfortable – from the plastic caps on our toothpaste tubes to the petrol in our cars – are “too boring to dwell on”, said John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” In this remarkable book, two journalists take us inside the world of commodity trading – the industry that controls “how oil, plastics and food get from where they are produced to us” – and reveal it to be the “wildest, dirtiest and riskiest business on the planet”. The dominant companies – Cargill, Vitol, Glencore – may not be household names, but they rival Big Tech in their profit-making abilities. The family that owns Cargill, the world’s biggest grain trader, “boasts 14 billionaires”.
As Blas and Farchy show, these firms haven’t always behaved very ethically, said Felix Martin in the FT. In 2016, Glencore “stood accused of plunging a whole country, Chad, into a sovereign debt crisis”. Even their more above-board antics have a “thriller-like quality”: the book opens with Ian Taylor, the late chief executive of Vitol, flying into Benghazi airport during the Libyan civil war of 2011 to strike a deal to supply oil to the rebel forces. Nor does it look like their ways will change soon, said James Ball in The Spectator, despite attempts to rein in their ability to profiteer. When the pandemic hit last spring Glencore, anticipating a global slowdown, “bought up all the space they could to store oil, including tankers capable of holding 3.2 million barrels”. When the oil price dropped to zero, they swooped in and bought up as much oil as they could – storing it at sea, before selling it a few months later. “While we worried about our livelihoods, Glencore’s traders made $1.3bn trading energy.”
Random House Business 416pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
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