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Reviewed by Sarah Ell

Portfolio, $26

For a small niche of men — and very few women — gambling on the future price of staples such as oil, soybeans and wheat has been a path to massive fortune. This is an activity not many of us understand, or even spend time thinking about. Yet despite it going unnoticed, the general public is affected by the price fluctuations that result from the actions of this group.

Kelly takes us behind closed doors to shed light on the practices and private lives of the world’s commodity traders. During the 2000s they rode high on the wave of a ‘supercycle’ of commodity prices, pocketing huge gains for themselves until regulation and the Global Financial Crisis put the brakes on.

Among the players revealed in Kelly’s book are Frenchman Pierre Andurand, whose ability to predict the fluctuations of the market earned him a massive fortune. Then there’s Jennifer Fan, one of the few female traders and a child genius who became a multimillionaire in her early 20s. 

Kelly also looks at one of the original traders, Marc Rich (whose birth name was Reich). Rich’s apparent lack of morals made him immensely wealthy. He traded with rogue nations such as Cuba, dealt with South Africa during the apartheid era and bought oil from Iran during the American hostage crisis of 1979–81. Rich was eventually indicted in the US for tax evasion, racketeering and trading with the enemy, hiding out in Switzerland until his pardon by the Clinton administration in 2001.

It’s the personal stories of the people behind the mind-bogglingly massive trades, and fortunes won and lost, which elevate this book above a dry account of numbers and financial market-speak. The audacity — some would say arrogance — of the traders is revealed, as is the massive scale of their operation and the effect it has on world commodity prices. Kelly gives us a glimpse of the lives of these people and their successes and failures. It makes us think about who really runs our world.