Monday, February 3, 2014

Impressions – The King of Oil

My earliest brush with Marc Rich might have well been the event that, he believed, would bring closure to the demonization that he was subject to for 17 years of his life. Living in luxurious self-imposed exile in reclusive Zug from US authorities pursuing him on charges of treason and tax fraud, he would find himself up chanting the final prayers in his father's wake over a long-distance call and be reduced to listening over telephone to his daughter die a slow death from leukemia, while being unable attend both funerals in person. He would also complete an acrimonious (and expensive) divorce from his wife of 30 years and go on to marry another (whom too he divorced, 9 years on, in yet another expensive affair).

Somewhere in between all this, in the dying hours of the Clinton era, a Presidential pardon ended and began a new chapter in the media scrutiny in his checkered life. Washed over in the torrent of media horror, I slowly picked together the life of the secretive commodities trader who spawned the colossus that today is GlencoreXstrata.

In this world of self-seekers, both myopic and narrow minded, a shrewd calculating man focused on the long term is indeed rare. Rarer still is to see him as evil. Perhaps this is my bias, but one who thinks long term and puts relationships before profits is in my dictionary termed astute.Marc Rich was an astute man, of this I am confident. But what else was he? An amoral trader, a dutiful son, silent intelligence sentinel, a doting father or a bitter ex-husband? How does one reconcile these contradictions? What can we learn from his failures and his astounding successes – notably, creating the global spot market for oil?

The King of Oil is hence an interesting book, as it pieces together the events in Marc Rich’s life and leaves the reader as the final judge. The absurdities that accompanied his trial and the machinations of Rich’s legal term are laid out in equal measure. Hence the book does not feel like a paid advert. It is in fact a sobering assessment of an infallible truth – even the Supermen and Superwomen that the world has seen will one day fade away in their days of glory or be dragged off their pedestals by Time if they tarry too long.

Reminding us of our mortality through the life of one considered invincible is perhaps the book’s greatest contribution. In parts fascinating, in others saddening, this is a Promethean tale that must be read.