A healthy world economy largely depends on the availability of an affordable supply of energy, primarily oil and natural gas, from which all the other goods and services common to the modern world are created or brought to market. Cheap oil and gas is good for everyone but the producers of those commodities. On the other hand, expensive oil and gas can cripple economic growth like nothing else can. But who decides what a barrel of oil is worth?
Commodity pricing is, of course, largely a function of supply and demand and how supply is expected to be impacted by future events such as hurricane weather in the Gulf of Mexico or the next hot spot in the Middle East. And the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) is filled with frantic traders trying to buy and sell oil and gas futures contracts based on what they expect supply numbers to be thirty or sixty days into the future. This group of mostly young men, dressed in loudly colorful jackets, and working in what seems to be complete chaos, manages to set energy prices for the rest of the world. But how the Merc really works is largely a mystery to the rest of us.
Readers who pick up Ben Mezrich’s Rigged hoping to learn something about the mechanics of the NYMEX will, unfortunately, come away from the experience frustrated and disappointed. Instead, Rigged is the personal story of Harvard Business School hotshot John D’Agostino (called David Russo in the book) who, as much by sheer chance as anything else, finds himself named a NYMEX vice-president only months after leaving the Harvard campus. That he knew nothing about commodity trading or the energy business seemed less important to those who placed him in that position than the fact that he was brash enough not to back down from the intimidation thrown at him by those who resented his presence on the trading floor and in the NYMEX boardroom.
Rigged is strongest when dealing with the floor traders and what it is like to be on the trading floor during the frenzy of a typical trading day. Mezrich describes clearly the personality traits necessary for survival in that atmosphere and points out that most of the long-term traders are born gamblers who thrive on the thrill of risk-taking. Those who are truly successful make huge amounts of money, every so often as much as $500,000 in one glorious day, and some of them tend to spend even that kind of money almost as quickly as they make it. Life for these guys, according to Mezrich, is a never-ending frat party.
The book loses momentum when it begins to focus on “Russo’s” scheme to team up with a well-placed young Muslim to set up a partnership between the NYMEX and the rulers of Dubai to open up a mercantile exchange in that country. “Russo” and his partner see this as something that will truly change the world, perhaps even to the point of making it a more peaceful planet by offering hope of a successful future to citizens of the Middle East. Mezrich, however, seems less impressed with the overall concept and its potential than he does with all the frat-boy activities that Dubai’s rulers use to entice the NYMEX board and its traders to buy into the deal, spending the bulk of his book to describe in detail all the booze, drugs, world-class loose women, and wild parties involved.
Ultimately this is more “Animal House” than a serious effort to shed any light on the workings of what is probably the most important mercantile exchange in the world, a squandered opportunity to write a serious and important book rather than the sensationally juvenile effort that resulted.