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The Undisputed King of Oil
Oil. Black gold. The “world’s most controversial resource” has created the mighty dynasties of the Rockefellers and the Gettys.1 It has tempted dictators such as Saddam Hussein into acts of aggression and brought down emperors such as the shah of Iran. Even today, countries are prepared to go to war to secure access to this strategically important resource. Without oil, there would not be an airplane in the sky or a car on the road. Without oil, hospitals would cease to operate and shopping centers would remain empty. Our modern economy is unthinkable without oil. Oil is the world’s most important source of energy. More important, it is the most important commodity of an industrial society. We live in the Age of Oil. We are “hydrocarbon man,” whose very survival would be impossible without oil.2
The spot market for oil was surely one of the most lucrative ideas of the twentieth century. Back when Marc Rich first began to snatch away a part of the global oil trade from the mighty oil corporations, crude oil cost $2 per barrel. In summer 2008 a barrel went for a record $140.3 Marc Rich’s undertaking was revolutionary—and highly successful. In the 1970s, Rich and a handful of trusted partners single-handedly managed to break the cartel of Big Oil, a cartel that dominated every aspect of the oil trade from the well to the gas pump. They created the first fully functioning, competitive market. They invented the spot market. Thanks to the oil trade, Rich—who came to the United States as a poor Jewish refugee boy—became one of the world’s richest and most powerful commodities traders. He advanced to become the “undisputed King of Oil,” as one of his longtime associates referred to him.
The high point of Rich’s power was soon followed by his fall from grace, a fall that cost the billionaire his reputation, his wife, and his company. Marc Rich is not known the world over as a result of his amazing entrepreneurial achievements, which were many. His name does not ring a bell because he was a unique pioneer of globalization, which he was. His name is not bound to the realization of the American dream, even though he rose from a penniless European Holocaust survivor to become one of the richest men in America by the strength of his own will.
Despite his fabulous wealth, Rich lost control over his own name. Today the name Marc Rich means the billionaire trader who fled the United States in 1983 to avoid charges of tax evasion and making illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis. Marc Rich stands for the controversial last- minute pardon he received from President Bill Clinton in January 2001, “one of the most disgusting acts of the Clinton administration,” as Forbes magazine wrote.4 Marc Rich stands for doing business “with just about every enemy of the United States,” according to Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform from 1997 to 2002.5
Who is this man who led a life of high stakes and high risks? Who is this man who saw wars and revolutions not as curses but as business opportunities? Who is the real Marc Rich, the man who managed to elude the agents of the most powerful nation on earth for nearly twenty years?
Although he is one of the most important and most controversial commodities traders of the twentieth century, only one biography has been written about him, nearly twenty- five years ago, and is now outdated.6 Perhaps this lack of coverage has something to do with the 1983 criminal proceedings that made Rich into the persona non grata that he is today. More likely it is because Rich is considered the most secretive trader of the notoriously furtive commodities trading community. For years, no one had ever seen a photograph of him. The media had to resort to artists’ sketches for their reports. He systematically avoided reporters. Rich gave his last interview of significant length over twenty years ago. As a result, no one has ever succeeded in getting to know the real Marc Rich. No one has ever been able to find out his secrets.
Three years ago I decided to do just that.
“Dear Mr. Rich,” I wrote in a letter in December 2006, in which I asked him for a meeting. “My aim is to get to know you better—your values, your thoughts, and your motivations.” I included a long list of questions.
I wanted him to know that I did not intend to avoid the delicate subjects. I wanted to ask him why he thought it was right to do business with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, or with apartheid South Africa—with corrupt, violent, and racist governments. I wanted to hear him speak about the charges of tax evasion, which he was accused of by none other than Rudolph W. Giuliani. I wanted to know why he did not return to the United States and defend himself in court. I wanted to know why he was finally pardoned by President Bill Clinton. I wanted to ask him how he came to terms with the death of his daughter, whom he was unable to visit in the United States during her illness. Of course, I also wanted to know why and how he of all people was so successful.
In all truth, I did not expect a response. Rich had never answered these questions before. That is why I was so surprised when he agreed to a meeting. Perhaps he was pleased by the fact that as a journalist I had been following his story for over ten years. I had always tried my best to remain fair and balanced. Each time I wrote an article about Rich, I gave him the opportunity to make a statement. It came as an even greater surprise when Rich agreed to my demands for total control over the contents of this book. I insisted on the “final cut privilege.” I did not want to write an “authorized account”—I wanted to do all of my own research, and naturally I wanted the freedom to write the things that he might not wish to read. Rich agreed to my terms, but he had one condition. He wanted to read my manuscript before it was sent to the publisher so that he could have the opportunity to point out any mistakes. I accepted his request on the condition that I would not be required to make changes to my manuscript if I thought I was right. After having read the manuscript, his comment was as short as it could possibly be. He thanked me in a letter for writing “a balanced report” and didn’t ask for any changes at all.
My many long conversations with Rich were an important source of information for this book. As you’ll see, he answered all the questions I had wanted to ask, and many more. It was the first time he had ever spoken about any of these subjects, and he only refused to answer my questions when he thought he might have a legal reason for doing so. He spoke openly about his dealings in the world’s troubled regions and admitted to having made deals with Iran, South Africa, Angola, and Cuba. He spoke for the first time about the legal case against him—insisting that he never evaded paying taxes and had never broken any laws.
I interviewed dozens of oil and commodities traders from the United States, Africa, Europe, and Asia who had worked with Rich in one capacity or another during the last forty years. They told me about the milestones in Rich’s life, his most important business partners, and his decisive business deals. They introduced me to the intricacies of the commodities trade. I had to accept the fact that most of them wished to remain anonymous. Commodities traders, I learned, take more pains to avoid publicity than even Swiss bankers. In this business—which often brings together clients who officially will have nothing to do with one another—discretion is one of the most important prerequisites for success. I read countless— sometimes confidential—documents concerning Rich’s case and his companies.
In order to find out more about the private Marc Rich, I spoke with his daughters Danielle and Ilona as well as with his close friends, including the legendary hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt. My conversation with Denise Rich, a very impressive woman, was of particular significance. She spoke frankly about her life with her former husband, their bitter divorce, and her role in obtaining Rich’s pardon. Ursula Santo Domingo— Rich’s first secretary, a Spanish marquesa—told me of Rich’s early days as a trader. A former officer of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, provided insight into Rich’s very special relationship to Israel and the crucial services he provided to the Jewish state. Finally, the attorneys Jack Quinn— Bill Clinton’s former White House counsel—Robert F. Fink, and André A. Wicki tried to convince me of how flawed the case against their client actually was.
Naturally I spoke with Rich’s opponents, such as his “nemesis,” Morris “Sandy” Weinberg Jr., who as a young assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York led the investigation into Rich’s dealings and wrote the indictment against him.7 I spoke with former U.S. Marshal Ken Hill, who for fourteen years secretly sought to detain—or even kidnap— Rich. I spoke to members of the judiciary and diplomats in the United States and Switzerland who told me off the record what they could not tell me publicly. I spoke to competitors and former employees who had fallen out with Rich.
The result of all the conversations and research is an epic story of power, morality, amorality, and ingeniousness in which many things are not as they appear. It is a story in which private lives collide with global politics. It is the saga of Marc Rich.2
The Biggest Devil
It is one of the coldest mornings of the year in St. Moritz, and I’m walking to my car. The snow crunches under my feet, and my breath hangs before me in a cloud of mist. It is eight degrees below zero Fahrenheit in the world’s oldest and most glamorous ski resort, and I can almost hear the air crackling. I ... --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
“It's a psychological thriller, each page percolating with the triumphant darkness that is Marc David Rich.” ―Bloomberg News
“An empathetic look at the notorious Marc Rich, one of the most successful and controversial commodities traders in recent history and a key figure in the invention of the spot market. With unparalleled access to Rich, his family and associates, business journalist Ammann paints a nuanced portrait of the man vilified for trading with Iran and apartheid-era South Africa, accused of being the biggest tax fraudster in U.S. history and recipient of an infamous presidential pardon. This meticulous account sets the record straight on a reluctant public figure who lost in the court of public opinion, but escaped being tried in a court of law.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Is Rich a rogue or a philanthropic businessman? Ammann lets readers draw their own conclusion. This book reads like a cross between a rags-to-riches saga and a cloak-and-dagger thriller, but it's also an excellent and timely primer on the world of commodities trading within a global economy and will greatly appeal to readers interested in current events.” ―Library Journal