Book review: “The King of Oil” by Daniel Ammann

Daniel Ammann’s biography of maverick commodities trader Marc Rich is a must-read masterpiece.

By Stefan Nilsson

I am a big fan of biographies, especially when the subjects are larger than life, the stories stranger than fiction and the biographers have based their books on in-depth interviews with their subjects and the people around them. Daniel Ammann’s Marc Rich biography, “The King of Oil. The Secrets Lives of Marc Rich” from 2009, is one of those fascinating reads. Marc Rich, credited as the inventor of the spot oil market, was a colourful character in the trading world. He didn’t care about the politics and the morals of his counterparties. He cared about the trade, doing the deals, making a profit. He was born Marcel David Reich in Belgium in 1934. His family, who were Jewish, emigrated to the US in 1941 to escape the Nazis. He dropped out of New York University to start his career in commodities trading at Philipp Brothers. In 1974 he founded Marc Rich + Co, which later became Glencore. He made deals with Iran, South Africa, Cuba, Libya, Romania, Chile, Angola, Nicaragua and other at the time questionable jurisdictions and frequently violated international trade embargoes. He often justified his business dealings by saying that he was providing a service to buyers and sellers and that he was a businessman, not a politician. In 1983, he was indicted in the US and fled to Switzerland. He never returned to the US, not even for the funeral of his daughter. In 2001, he controversially received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton. This followed a lot of lobbying by influential people, including American hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt and many of Israel’s leading politicians (later on, Marc would admit to having assisted Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service). His lifestyle and business dealings meant that he during his lifetime had Belgian, US, Spanish, Bolivian and Israeli citizenships. When Marc died of a stroke in Switzerland in 2013 at the age of 78, he had lived a fuller and more colourful life than most of us. “The King of Oil” is an excellent book, especially if you, like me, have an interest in commodities, trading, geopolitics, people and history. This biography reads like a psychological thriller. The author, Daniel Ammann, business editor of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, has done an excellent job of portraying the person Marc Rich and managed to dig deep into his mind. Daniel had the privilege of doing extensive interviews with Marc who by the time the book was published in 2009 had little to fear and nothing to hide. Having stayed rather private and away from the limelight throughout his life, in his final years he opened up and, by doing so, allowed Daniel to write an excellent biography. While not minimising or ignoring Marc’s dirty deeds, the book goes beyond the usual descriptions of him as a capitalist who didn’t care, and paints a more balanced picture of a man not afraid to do business with shady characters but at the same time passionate about helping those in need. Marc was an art collector and a philanthropist. He made substantial donations to various Israel-related causes. He clearly was a multi-layered and complex character. This book is a must-read for anyone in the alternative investment world. It’s an entertaining and fascinating read with plenty of business and life lessons. It features a lot of details around Marc Rich’s trades, businesses and views of geopolitical opportunities and threats.

Stefan Nilsson is the Founder and Editor of the Hedge Funds Club.