Book Review: The World for Sale - Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources


Javier Blas and Jack Farchy draw readers into the opaque world of commodity traders in their exposé

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Image by Penguin Books Ltd.

By Josh Cole

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the worlds of grain, metal and oil trading might be uneventful, but in Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s book The World for Sale, they are anything but. Blas and Farchy’s recount of the history of the charismatic traders who provide us with the life-sustaining materials and the incredible lengths they will go to fulfil our needs, whilst making an eye-watering profit in the process, in many ways reads like a thriller. The authors shine a light on this practice, commonly overlooked, which has involved the traders rubbing shoulders with some of the most appalling human rights abusers, whilst also single-handedly propping up the economy of the entire country.

The authors chart the influence and developments of commodity traders from the postwar era. Dealing in physical goods, namely grains such as wheat, metals such as aluminium and oil, traders connect producers with sellers and ensure that wherever there is demand, they will be there to plug the gap. Blas and Farchy note straightaway how this industry, whilst affecting each and every one of us, is little known by many members of the public and its inner workings not fully understood by governments. In bringing to light how this industry has developed over the postwar era, the authors detail incredible stories that seem almost unbelievable. Cases range from the trading house, March Rich & Co, helping to keep the Jamaican government afloat financially in the 1980s in exchange for payments in future oil contracts, to appalling instances of environmental abuse like Trafigura’s dumping of toxic waste outside the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan in 2006, show how great an impact these traders have on the world.

Blas and Farchy really hone in on the eye-watering amount of money that these traders make. One such example is that of two oil trading houses, Mercuria and Gunvor who facilitated the export of Russian oil to feed China’s economic acceleration after 2000. In the decade from 2008-2018, these two firms combined profits totalled $6.6 billion (USD); with most of this being accrued by the six key individuals running the trading houses. The World for Sale problematises the key mantra of the traders, that they pursue profit, not politics. The insane amounts of money washing around the book and the extreme lengths that the traders will go to secure natural resources leads the authors to emphasise that the traders' amoralism does not make them apolitical.

Though at times it would have been useful for it to have expanded a little more on certain technical issues for readers like myself with little prior knowledge, Blas and Farchy’s book provides a fascinating and broadly accessible insight into this notoriously secretive world. They chart the key developments of the industry, from the breaking of the oil majors’ dominance in the 1970s, to the supercycle in commodity prices caused by China’s breakneck expansion in the 2000s. Alongside the history, The World for Sale covers the personal story of how swashbuckling traders and powerful CEOs shaped the lives of millions of people around the world. This book is a must-read for those wanting to understand how the planet’s resources are distributed, and the politics, economics and attitudes that shape these processes.

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Paperback published: 10/03/2022
Price: £9.99
Length: 416 pages