NS business profile: Marc Rich, Glencore's fugitive founder

Glencore's worst kept secret.

Glencore’s worst kept secret – the company’s former name was that of America’s once wealthiest fugitive. When Marc Rich & Co AG was renamed Glencore after a management buyout in 1993, its founder and namesake was already on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

Ironically, Marc Rich was not born in the US. He immigrated there in 1941 when his parents fled the war in Belgium. Instead of studying – he enrolled at New York University but dropped out – Rich started his commodities career early at Philipp Brothers (now Phibro LLC).

At Philipp Brothers, Rich pulled off his first Middle Eastern corporate coup. It was 1973, the spring before OAPEC countries imposed the oil export embargo that would wreck havoc on the world’s economies. How he predicted the embargo, and the threefold price increase that accompanied it, is uncertain, but that spring, Rich more or less pioneered a new form of commodities trading. Future trading was the norm in the crude oil market, but realising a price hike was imminent, Rich started buying and selling on the spot (immediate) market. This allowed him to sell on demand as the embargo took effect and, of course, demand and price rose catastrophically.  

Philipp Brothers were appalled, and sold most of the oil before the embargo took effect. Rich resigned and, together with partners Pincus Green and Alec Hackel, founded Marc Rich & Co AG in the laid back rural town of Zug, Switzerland. It was 1974, 20 years before Marc Rich + Co AG would be renamed Glencore, and 37 before its giant IPO.

Trading from his own company, Rich quietly ignored international sanctions. From 1979 to 1993, his company imported 50,000 tons of oil to the heavily sanctioned South African apartheid government according to the Shipping Research Bureau. Then there was Iran.

In the midst of the 1979 hostage crises, the United States banned all oil trading with Iran. Rich, however, ignored these and purchased crude through a maze of front and shell companies.

It was a crime that was only picked up in 1983 by Rudoph Giuliani, then a US Federal Prosecutor. Amid more than 51 counts of tax fraud, $48 m in tax evasion and a 300 year prison sentence, Rich fled to the hills of Zug, not to return to his Fifth Avenue apartment for many years.

Glencore, or Marc Rich + Co AG as it was then, was to remain in Rich’s hands for another 10 years. In 1990, Marc Rich & Co AG became a majority shareholder of another Swiss commodities company called Xstrata.

It was only after nearly bankrupting the company in 1993 through zinc trades that Rich was forced to sell his entire stake of the company to its management. Only then did the company drop the founder’s name, along with his notoriety, to rename itself Glencore.

Bitter at being forced out of his company, where there were already rumours of a Glencore-Xstrata merger, Rich founded another trading company called MRI Trading AG. In 2003, with a $7.5 billion turnover and 240 employees, MRI was sold to Russian Crown Resources.

Rich’s controversy reached its pinnacle when he was pardoned by the US President in 2001. President Clinton made a total of 396 pardons, but the one made to Marc Rich during his last day in office was his most notorious. It emerged only afterwards that Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, was a close friend of the Clintons. The pair had made sizable donations to the Clinton Presidential Library and the Clinton Foundation. 

Although a free man, Rich lives in Switzerland where he enjoys dabbling in the commodities market from time to time. His family office, The Marc Rich Group, guards his estimated $2.5 bn fortune, according to the global wealth consultancy, WealthInsight. This figure includes the superyacht, Lady Joy; a notorious art collection and property in St Moritz, Lucerne, Marbella, Lisbon and Moscow. Through his ‘The Rich Foundation’, he has donated large amounts to Israeli causes and, as a result, been bestowed with honorary doctorates from Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion Universities.

No longer a thorn in Glencore’s side, Rich still maintains opinions in the deal that set last week’s headlines: "It is not necessary, because Glencore dominates Xstrata anyway thanks to a large minority stake....The larger a company is, the more market power, it has controlled and thus easier to pricing. In the end, this means higher profits." Rich told the Swiss magazine, Bilanz.

Not that Rich’s opinion counts anymore. No longer a shareholder in either Glencore or Xstrata, he is rarely credited with paving the way for what could be the largest corporate merger in history. As each company comes under scrutiny ahead of the deal, they probably want to forget their match made in lawlessness.

House Hearing on President Clinton's Pardon of Marc Rich. Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear