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Good Reads  Environmental & Social Studies  Economics, Politics & Policy  Economics, Business & Industry  Business & the Environment

The World for Sale Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth's Resources

By: Javier Blas(Author), Jack Farchy(Author)
410 pages
Publisher: Random House
Meet the traders who supply the world with oil, metal and food – no matter how corrupt, war-torn or famine-stricken the source.
The World for Sale
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  • The World for Sale ISBN: 9781847942678 Paperback Mar 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The World for Sale ISBN: 9781847942654 Hardback Feb 2021 Out of Print #251914
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About this book

The modern world is built on commodities – from the oil that fuels our cars to the metals that power our smartphones. We rarely stop to consider where they come from. But we should.

In The World for Sale, two leading journalists lift the lid on one of the least scrutinised corners of the economy: the workings of the billionaire commodity traders who buy, hoard and sell the earth's resources. It is the story of how a handful of swashbuckling businessmen became indispensable cogs in global markets: enabling an enormous expansion in international trade, and connecting resource-rich countries – no matter how corrupt or war-torn – with the world's financial centres. And it is the story of how some traders acquired untold political power, right under the noses of Western regulators and politicians – helping Saddam Hussein to sell his oil, fuelling the Libyan rebel army during the Arab Spring, and funnelling cash to Vladimir Putin's Kremlin in spite of strict sanctions.

The result is an eye-opening tour through the wildest frontiers of the global economy, as well as a revelatory guide to how capitalism really works.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An eye-opener
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Oct 2021 Written for Paperback

    From the food we eat and the fuel we burn to the materials that make up our everyday objects – we live in a material world. The traders who get these commodities from producers to consumers are key players in the world economy, yet also some of the most secretive and least scrutinised. Javier Blas and Jack Farchy are two journalists who report on energy and natural resources for Bloomberg News. In The World for Sale, they rip the veil off this sector, exposing the often dubious and amoral ways in which some trading houses have amassed staggering fortunes. I expect that this eye-popping exposé, which sometimes reads more like a crime novel, will be warmly welcomed by both seasoned readers of business books and inquisitive passers-by.

    My first introduction to commodity traders was while reviewing Earth Wars, which mentioned that these companies seek to keep a low profile. Given my interest in resource extraction and depletion, The World for Sale lured like bait; I do not normally read business books, but this one seemed interesting and relevant. It did not disappoint.

    Blas & Farchy draw on their twenty years of reporting during which they travelled to dozens of countries and spoke to the business partners and government officials who deal with traders. They also collected thousands of pages of unpublished documentation detailing their finances, organisation, and business networks. But most impressively, they have spent over a year interviewing more than a hundred current and former employees, CEOs, and founders of some of the biggest trading houses, many of whom only wanted to speak under the condition of anonymity. Several of them are currently under investigation and what Blas & Farchy reveal is only the tip of the iceberg. One former trader started his interview by saying "What I'm going to tell you is not going to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There are things I'm just not going to tell you" (p. 12). Nevertheless, this is without a doubt the most candid and probing look at this industry so far.

    Though international trade is centuries old, the authors start their history in the 1950s. International oil trade was only just being pioneered and one trader who became spectacularly successful in the 1970s was Marc Rich. He had an outsized influence on how trading houses did business for decades to come. From here on, Blas & Farchy chart the rise and fall of various large trading houses as they branch out into different markets.

    The authors frame their history around four developments over the last 50-odd years that allowed these businesses to flourish, going from profits of millions to billions of US dollars. These were the advent of international oil trade, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the urbanisation of China in the 2000s, and the trading houses benefiting from the growth of the banking sector and various developments the global economy.

    At this point, you might shrug: "okay, so some people got filthy rich trading stuff". However, success in this business depends on your willingness to adopt a certain mindset: "go everywhere, leaving politics and, in many cases, morality to one side" (p. 27). Marc Rich + Co happily traded with apartheid-era governments in South Africa and defrauded OPEC by abusing the discount they gave to developing African nations, setting up shell companies there to buy oil cheaper. Vitol circumvented the US trade embargo on Cuba, buying the country's sugar and selling it Soviet oil (which you might or might not cheer on, depending on your views). Glencore paid the Iraqi embassy bribes for the privilege of oil trade during Saddam Hussein's regime. And Trafigura got their hands dirty in a pollution scandal in Ivory Coast.

    These are but some of the many eye-opening examples Blas & Farchy give of the willingness of commodity traders to deal with dictatorial regimes, to trade in war-torn countries, to engage in bribery and corrupt practices, and to funnel dirty money through offshore companies – all in the pursuit of profit. What I appreciated, and no doubt readers familiar with economics and international trade will too, is that the authors are balanced in their reporting. Even though the above excesses speak for themselves, this book is not a smear campaign: "The worst examples of commodity traders' behaviour do not define the whole industry" (p. 20). They agree with traders claiming to be apolitical: "[their] motivation is almost always coldly financial". However, "even if political influence isn't their goal, that doesn't mean that the commodity traders are not influential" (p. 291). Another thing I liked was that Blas & Farchy explain unfamiliar trading practices and jargon, such as futures, spot markets, tolling, or commodity supercycles. This book is accessible without telling a simplistic story.

    How on Earth was this book written without the authors being sued to hell and back? In an interview before his death in 2020, Vitol chairman and CEO Ian Taylor was clear: "We would prefer you not to write it" (p. 10). The last two chapters clarify much. Glencore's 2011 decision to become a public company was a bombshell. It entailed tremendous scrutiny, exposing not just Glencore but the whole industry. Even the traders' suppliers and buyers had largely been unaware of just how much these companies enriched themselves. Several other reasons including easier access to information, increased transparency thwarting bribery and corruption, and ever-larger mining and oil companies handling their own logistics. In short, this is a book whose time has come. But, warn Blas & Farchy, the days of the traders are far from over. Just recently, some profited from the pandemic-induced low oil prices.

    The book left me with a few observations. There are two accomplices that the authors, understandably, only briefly mention. One are the banks that, as the last chapter highlights, have recently been targeted by the US government who is turning the traders' dependence on the US dollar against them. Two is Switzerland that stubbornly looks the other way while headquartering many of these companies. Commodity traders are also unconcerned about climate change "If Big Oil and Big Coal are responsible for polluting the planet, the traders are their enablers" (p. 318). My other concern, that of extraction and ultimately depletion of non-renewable resources seems not to be on the radar of either the traders or the authors.

    The World for Sale bravely exposes a sector that has largely escaped people's attention. Urgent and eye-opening, this is a phenomenally well-written book that you can understand and enjoy even when you do not read, say, the Financial Times. If you are a consumer who cares where their stuff comes from, this book is mandatory reading.
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Javier Blas and Jack Farchy are two of the world's best-known journalists covering energy, commodities and trading houses. They both work for Bloomberg News, where Blas is chief energy correspondent and Farchy is a senior reporter covering natural resources. Previously, they covered commodities for the Financial Times.

Blas and Farchy have interviewed most of the key figures in the commodity trading industry – in some cases, the first time the traders had ever spoken publicly. They've published the financial accounts of many of these secretive companies for the first time. And they've reported on oil, food and war from countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Ivory Coast, and Libya.

The pair frequently appear on TV and radio as experts on commodities. Blas has been interviewed on BBC News, CNN and Al Jazeera, and Farchy regularly appears on BBC Radio 4 Today. The World for Sale is their first book.

By: Javier Blas(Author), Jack Farchy(Author)
410 pages
Publisher: Random House
Meet the traders who supply the world with oil, metal and food – no matter how corrupt, war-torn or famine-stricken the source.
Media reviews

"This jaw-dropping study shows how much money and global influence is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group [...] A remarkable book [...] As the authors roam from oilfield to wheatfield, they reveal information so staggering you almost gasp [...] The colour is fantastic [...] Tracking down some of the biggest names in the business to their German castles and stud farms and persuading them to talk is a rare scoop."
Sunday Times

"A fascinating and revealing story [...] There are tales in the book of breathtaking trades, such as shipments of rebel oil from war-torn Libya or deals bartered amid the brutal "aluminium wars" in the Russia of the 1990s [...] A gripping book."

"Javier Blas and Jack Farchy probe the hard-knuckle and secretive world of commodity trading."
– What to Read in 2021, Financial Times

"A globe-spanning corporate thriller, full of intrigue and double dealing [...] Changes how we see the world, often in horrifying ways [...] The book weaves together years of reporting experience in the field with access to many of the key figures in an industry dominated by huge characters [...] New insights and reporting mean that even seasoned observers will be amazed."
– James Ball, Spectator

"Anecdotally rich [...] A highly readable study in world economics and a valuable primer for would-be oil barons."

"The definitive, eye-opening story of the most powerful and secretive traders in the world."
– Bradley Hope, co-author of Billion Dollar Whale

"Blas and Farchy shine light on what's long been the financial markets' darkest corner – the crucial, yet underappreciated, role commodity traders play in global finance and geopolitics [...] The World for Sale is a fascinating, eye-opening read."
– Gregory Zuckerman, author of The Man Who Solved the Market

"Javier Blas and Jack Farchy deftly peel back the curtain on the amoral swashbucklers of capitalism who trade in commodities [...] The World for Sale is a gripping account of how they achieved their stranglehold over the world economy, and their troubling influence on global politics."
– Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store

"Blas and Farchy compellingly lay out how a handful of secretive traders have had a hand in directing not only the world's commodities, but also its politics and history. The World for Sale draws back the covers on a sector where civil wars, dubious regimes and the collapse of states have often been just another business opportunity – and what that has meant for the rest of us. Intriguing and, at times, alarming."
– Helen Thomas, Business Editor, BBC Newsnight

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