The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich
by Daniel Ammann
St. Martin’s Press
$26.99; 320 pages
It’s as if God gives some people gifts and challenges designed to make their life pathways inevitable. Consider Marc Rich, the international commodity trading billionaire largely responsible for the inception of the spot oil market and financial globalization. As a boy, he developed a mentality of “survivor” and “refugee” via his family’s flight from the Holocaust. He discovered a predilection for linguistics, his multi-language fluency becoming an invaluable asset as his career as an international financier blossomed. He learned ways to turn obstacles into opportunities, as when the government capped oil prices. He actually profited off the restriction via a strategic interplay of purchases and sales.
This adaptability saved him from almost certain long-term imprisonment. The dark side of Rich’s account is that of a fugitive from federal charges of tax evasion and illegal dealings with the Iranians during the American hostage crisis. Rudy Giuliani was among his dogged pursuers. A U.S. attorney at the time, he foresaw political pay dirt in prosecuting the high profile case.
The Feds ultimately couldn’t compete against Rich’s powerful international contacts, however, and he remained in friendly overseas environs up through his pardon by President Clinton in 2001. This does not imply an exile without hardship; as one harrowing section details, he was unable to return to his daughter as she was dying of cancer. His tarnished reputation was also a huge source of angst, particularly the perception that he was a traitor.
Perhaps vindication was behind the reclusive Rich’s decision to let Daniel Ammann extensively interview him, much to the author’s surprise. Some terms had to be met, but Amman was able to retain “total control of the content” and “final cut privilege.” Rich was granted his request to read the pre-final manuscript for the purpose of correcting inaccuracies, but he was not allowed to veto anything Amman deemed worthy of inclusion. The result is a candid exchange that sheds some light on the mind behind the icon, albeit maybe less than true market aficionados would want.
The book works better as a suspenseful chronicle of the unfolding events of his saga. Rich is revealed to be as skilled at evading justice as he was at amassing a fortune, although Amman’s assemblage of facts and interviews does raise the question of the righteousness of the case. When Amman asked why he worked so hard to reach a fair settlement with his adversaries, Rich’s response was typically direct and succinct.
“It’s normal. I’m innocent.”
Art Collins is the author of “Beating the Financial Futures Market” and co-founder of the Trireme Capital hedge fund.