A walking-on-eggshells attempt to shed light on arguably the most influential oil trader of our time.
Marc Rich rose to prominence, and billionaire status, in the 1970s by inventing the spot market for oil and by working harder and more aggressively than other commodities traders. His corporation famously traded with apartheid South Africa, Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini, Cuba, Nigeria under the dictator Sani Abacha, China and Russia. In 1983, then–New York attorney Rudy Giuliani brought more than 50 charges against Rich in a highly publicized indictment that ended with Rich in self-exile, the ruination (or exposure, depending on your perspective) of Rich’s name, his tenure on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, his eventual pardon by President Clinton and Rich’s near-complete retreat from the public eye. Rich is a polarizing figure, and while Die Weltwoche business editor Ammann admirably attempts to capture his nuances, the author’s analyses and observations are conducted with undue caution. Circumspect reportage—the author frequently writes of Rich responding “uneasily” or “warily”—gives the impression that Ammann doesn’t wish to jeopardize his position by asking tough questions. This restraint brings unnecessary diffidence to the book, with one surprising exception: a brief, frank interview with one of Rich’s commodities traders. Questioned by Ammann about the ethics of trading with oppressive regimes, the anonymous subject points out that the bauxite used to produce the aluminum in Ammann’s soda can probably came from an oppressive dictatorship, and the oil heating the interview room probably came from Saudi Arabia. “Do the people who criticize our work want to know any of this?” the trader asks. The author assumes that the answer, for most American consumers, is no. To him, Rich and his fellow commodities traders operated, and still operate, “between a sense of reality and self-deception…the name for this gray area is capitalism.”
A flawed biography that reveals more about capitalist societies’ willful ignorance and ethical conundrums than the secret lives of its inscrutable subject.