The buoyant oil traders

TIMING IS EVERYTHING. When the late Marc Rich, an infamous commodities trader, set out to prise open the Fort Knox world of oil trading in the early 1970s, he had little more to help him than family money, the proceeds from the sale of a colleague’s car, and an address book full of contacts. But something momentous was happening. In the Middle East oil nationalism was stirring. Members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries were tearing up a post-war system in which Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters, fixed the price of crude. An Arab oil embargo had pushed prices up to record levels. It was an ideal time for a renegade trader to go behind the backs of blue-chip producers, ship oil around the world on behalf of despots and sell it at market prices. With the motto “To make money out of other people’s money”, Rich created a business that was reliant on bank loans, secretive and controversial (he was indicted in 1983 for tax evasion and trading with Iran). It was also fabulously profitable.

Almost 50 years later, circumstances could not be more different. After a lousy year for oil producers in 2019, demand for petroleum has collapsed as a result of covid-19 lockdowns. Prices hit record lows. Oil is overflowing from storage tanks and sitting uselessly in supertankers. To constrain supply, producers are...



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