Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the West’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. 40 per cent of Europe’s gas comes from Russia, while 7 per cent of US oil is Russian. Going cold turkey immediately isn’t an option; petrol pump prices are already at an historic high. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is in Riyadh tasked with wooing the Saudis, who, despite their dubious record on human rights, remain the only viable alternative to filling a Russia-shaped hole in the West’s oil market.
But the truth about the world’s strategic resources lies not just in where they are sourced, but in who controls their flow. A mere five oil trading houses handle a quarter of the world’s demand for crude oil. Seven agricultural traders divide up half of the world’s grain. Glencore, the largest metals trader, accounts for a third of the world’s supply of cobalt, used in mobile phones and electric cards. How did a group of international commodity trading houses – Cargill, Vitol, Trafigura and Glencore – come to hold extraordinary financial wealth and political power, despite being unheard of by most ordinary people?
In March 2022, journalists Javier Blas and Jack Farchy came to Intelligence Squared to talk about the themes of their new book The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources. They revealed 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. From the private jet of Ian Taylor, the late chief executive of Vitol, who dodged hostile missiles as he landed in Benghazi airport in 2011 to strike a deal to supply rebel forces with oil in the middle of the Libyan civil war, to Chad, which, by 2016, Glencore stood accused of plunging into a sovereign debt crisis, they took us on an eye-opening and timely tour of the wildest frontiers of the global economy.
‘This jaw-dropping study shows how much money and global influence is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group […] as the authors roam from oilfield to wheatfield, they reveal information so staggering you almost gasp.’ – The Sunday Times
‘Could there be a better moment for Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s rollicking new account of those markets’ recent history to land on investors’ desks? A rich archive of ripping yarns […] thriller-like. You simply couldn’t make it up.’ –The Financial Times
‘A fascinating and revealing story […] The wonder is that so few firms, owned by a tiny number of people, were able to grab such a hold on global commodity trading with so little oversight […] a gripping book.’ – The Economist