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Metal Men: How Marc Rich Defrauded the Country, Evaded the Law, and Became the World’s Most Sought-After Corporate Criminal by A. Craig Copetas
Date Finished: March 17th, 2018
Reading Time: The train ride to O’Hare
I found an old copy of this book lying around the office and read it between the Halsted and O’Hare CTA stops. The back cover of the 1985 edition I read–actually, first I want to talk about the front cover. The front of the book may be one of the worst designs I have ever seen and I’m going to break one of my cardinal rules of Goodreads in sharing an image.
The crazy part is that the guy who created the cover owns a design agency and is still designing things, albeit not as badly. The first edition of Less Than Zero also bears his fingerprints, or possibly his footprints. I will never understand the eighties.
Anyway, the back cover makes the claim that the author “actually” posed as a trader, received a job offer for $120,000, which is over a quarter mil in today’s dollars, and turned it down to return to journalism. Personally, I would have welcomed the extended detour. Unlike Michael Lewis or other writers who have taken us deep into the world of high finance, Copetas doesn’t involve himself at all with the narrative. This makes the claim on the flip side of the jacket quite odd, as, at 222 small pages, it probably could have been squeezed in somewhere.
Metal Men is the story of Marc Rich and his eponymous company that eventually became Glencore, one of the largest trading companies in the world. The author only “met” Rich once despite “penetrating his inner circle.” This episode occurred in a restaurant in Zug when Craig Copetas cornered Marc Rich when he was on his way to the bathroom. Rich ended up jumping out the window of the bathroom.
The metal aspect, as we eventually find out, is somewhat of a misnomer. As, though originally specializing in metals, the traders came to speculate in every commoditized product of the earth, from cotton to crude oil. The traders in this book, though, have little in common with the modern notion of a trader. Thirty years ago, the traders at the top of the food chain were largely middlemen, forming relationships with warlords and heads of state and knowing that they could break into the raw materials game wherever they wanted by using powerful friends and unfathomable sums of money.
What happened was that the money and influence eventually became too great. Marc Rich & Co literally didn’t have to play by anybody’s rules and became a worldwide political risk by supplying weapons to various militant groups and most notably trading with Iran during the hostage crisis. Who cares about firms peddling bundles of subprime mortgages when Marc Rich & Co had the ability to alter human history?
Marc Rich avoided taxes by moving operations to Zug, Switzerland. To this day, Glencore is based in Baar, a nearby town in the same canton. The dance required by companies relocated to tax havens is explained in great detail and never ceases to be interesting. After a while, he was charged with a litany of crimes and, to make a long story short, spent the rest of his life in Switzerland until being pardoned by Bill Clinton on his last day in office in 2001. Hell yeah!
The book is non sequitur and provides a rich history of Rich’s family including their persecution by the Nazis. Rich himself is painted as an obsessively private, abrasive person. On one hand, this was the single most important reason that he was so successful for so long, but, thirty years later, it makes this book quite weak. Thankfully, Marc Rich finally opened up and granted an interview for the 2010 book The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich so reading that book will be a much better use of your time.