One of the craziest parts of the modern information economy is the intangibility of wealth. For many of the world’s most dynamic companies, the main value lives in someone’s head - or a server farm or a codebase on Github. Freetrade is one of those companies.
But there’s still a lot of money in the oldest industry in the world: digging stuff out of the ground and trading it. It’s called commodity broking.
The word ‘commodity’ has a few different meanings based on context and also, weirdly, political leaning. In the markets, it means an economic good that can be exchanged without discrimination (i.e. one barrel of oil is equivalent to another barrel of oil). Usually that means basic raw materials like fuels and metals, but also crops and cattle.
Remember Trading Places and their frozen orange juice contracts? That was set at a commodities broker.
IRL, at the heart of the commodity business there are a few huge and secretive companies, straddling the worlds of trading, logistics and mining. Firms include the likes of Trafigura, Vitol and the most interesting of all: Glencore.
The King of Oil
Glencore originated in 1974 as Marc Rich and Co, the private venture of an appropriately named commodities trader.
If Marc Rich had never existed, Oliver Stone would have had to invent him. It’s difficult to imagine a better example of the gallivanting, morally ambiguous tycoon.
Either a cigar or a very old Twix
He began his career as a metals trader at the broker Phillip Brothers in the 1950s and later expanded his remit to oil.
The 1970s were a dicey and potentially very profitable time for an oil trader. Energy crises, political unrest and embargoes meant seesaw prices. Amidst the worry and chaos, Rich saw an opportunity and founded his own commodity firm - only after being refused a $1 million bonus by the boss of Phillip Brothers.
He was instrumental in the expansion of the spot (meaning ‘immediate’) market for oil trading. Before that, most oil trading was based on futures contracts, which specify delivery for a later date.
Now oil and energy could change hands instantly, with Marc Rich and Co. matching buyers and sellers.
He also innovated the use of bank credit to make faster and bigger deals than old school trading houses.
He created a far more nimble, dynamic trading environment with way more ability to profit from volatility.
He ploughed his fortune into alternative assets including real estate and the movie studio 20th Century Fox. He also found time to marry songwriter Denise Eisenberg.
By the late 1970s, he’d earned his unofficial title: the King of Oil.
But Rich was as rogue as he was regal.
He later admitted that his most profitable relationships were with dictatorial regimes, flouting sanctions and embargoes. He dealt with dictators across the political spectrum from Castro and Ceaucescu to Gaddafi and Pinochet, as well as the Apartheid regime.
However, one particular deal was a step too far.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution initiated a major oil crisis. The disruption caused a decline in supply, which then tipped into a bigger panic causing oil to rise to its highest price ever. In the midst of this, the US imposed sanctions on the new regime. However, Rich continued to source oil through a personal relationship with the Ayatollah.
In 1983, Rich was indicted for 65 crimes, some related to the Iran trades, others for tax evasion and racketeering. Fun fact: the indictment was masterminded by then US prosecutor Rudy Giuliani, pictured below eating a large imaginary sandwich.
Facing a potential 300 years imprisonment, Rich fled to Switzerland and refused to return to the States. His companies faced fines, but he remained free - and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for years to come.
In 2001, Bill Clinton pardoned Rich during his last few hours as president. Rich’s now ex-wife had made large political contributions to Clinton and some people suggested there might be a connection between those two clearly unrelated facts.
Clinton has always insisted that there was a good case that no crime had been committed, but the NYTimes called it “a shocking abuse of power.”
Despite the pardon, Marc spent the rest of his days exiled in Switzerland, which is only a punishment if you hate pristine lakes, antique clocks and chocolate.
He never returned to the US.
The Rise of Glencore
Amazingly, the indictment wasn’t what brought down Rich. He continued to run Marc Rich and Co. from exile.
However, in 1993 he faced another scandal, this time for trying to corner the zinc market.
That was the last straw for his circle of protégés and cronies at the company, the so-called Rich Boys.
Organising a management buyout, the Rich Boys insisted he give up his majority stake and turn over the company to them. After the buyout, they renamed the company Glencore (instead of calling it ‘- and Co.’)
Over the next two decades, Glencore became famous for its intense, secretive working culture, big bonuses and hugely ambitious, aggressive deals. Even during the financial crisis of 2008-9, the company raked in billion dollar profits.
The company was still private which meant that a few hundred partners effectively owned huge stockpiles of the world’s resources. Goldman Sachs, eat your heart out!
While Glencore had become a model of discretion compared to the flashy Marc Rich years, the perception of the commodities business was fundamentally the same: resources originating with corrupt or unstable regimes and deals struck with secretive financial manoeuvering. From Africa to Russia, Glencore had the best commercial intelligence and relationships.
Despite the inherent controversy of their business, in 2011, Ivan Glasenberg, one of the original Rich Boys, decided to take Glencore public.
Commodity broking requires a lot of capital or a lot of debt (or both). As a private partnership, every time someone major retired, the company’s capital was drawn down to pay them out. As a public company, shareholding employees could be rewarded without depleting the company’s resources. They could also borrow more and complete a long-planned takeover of Swiss mining company Xstrata.
Into the light
Glencore’s IPO was the biggest ever listing on the London Stock Exchange, valued at around $60B and minting 6 new billionaires. However, the IPO has been Glencore’s peak valuation.
Glencore had a shockingly bad 2015, driven by slumping commodity prices and the cost of their huge debt pile. Their original pitch to the markets was that a hybrid commodity company with Glencore’s trading expertise and Xstrata’s acquired mining operations could hedge against difficult times. That hypothesis didn’t work during a truly brutal year for commodity prices and Glencore’s extremely high debt levels.
The share price tanked to less than 20% of its original IPO value and Glasenberg, once considered the world’s best trader, was humiliated.
Since then, Glencore have recovered somewhat, reduced their debt and their hybrid model started to work, with trading division delivering profits despite depressed commodity prices. But the scars were there and the billionaire Rich Boys have also begun to split up.
The company’s increasingly shifting towards managing and controlling assets and away from the highly leveraged trading strategy of the past. It’s sort of settling into relatively placid middle age - ‘relative’ being the operative word: the company still attracts plenty of scrutiny and controversy.
Glencore’s not out of the woods though. Their newest and most important battle will likely be fought on the climate front, with large shareholders successfully pressuring the company into limiting its coal output.
However, as long as people need to eat, drive, warm their homes or do anything outside of VR, it’s likely Glencore and its peers will be taking a piece of the pie.
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