According to conventional economic thinking, commodity prices are governed by impersonal market forces. That’s how oil companies, for instance, are able to claim they are not to blame for soaring petroleum prices even as they rake in record profits.
What these corporations conveniently leave out of their narrative is the fact that markets can be manipulated. This reality is made abundantly clear in a multinational criminal case involving the Swiss commodity trading and mining company Glencore.
Law enforcement officials in the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil have just announced that Glencore will plead guilty and pay more than $1 billion in penalties for a case that involves, among other things, manipulation of fuel oil prices in the United States over a period of eight years. According to the U.S. Justice Department, Glencore created phony transactions in order to effect changes in benchmark rates that benefitted the company’s trading positions. As punishment for this behavior, Glencore will pay a criminal fine of $341 million and criminal forfeiture of $144 million.
The charges against Glencore also include allegations of widespread bribery. The DOJ stated that over a decade the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by making more than $100 million in improper payments to government officials in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
After using these bribes to gain improper business advantages, Glencore was said to have concealed the payments by entering into sham consulting agreements and paying inflated invoices. In other words, it falsified its own records in an effort to cover up its corruption. For these offenses, Glencore was hit with a criminal fine of $428 million and disgorgement in the amount of $272 million.
It is unclear to what extent Glencore’s market manipulation behavior affected overall fuel oil prices in the United States and what harm its bribes may have caused in those African and South American countries.
What is undeniable is that Glencore has now joined the list of large corporations whose ethics policies have turned out to be a sham. As of this writing, the company’s website still touts its code of conduct, which is spelled out in a 59-page document. It includes statements such as: “We act honestly and with integrity and are accountable for everything we do.” And: “We do not engage in corruption and we never pay bribes regardless of who we’re dealing with or what the local custom or practice is.”
It actually should come as no surprise that Glencore would fail to live up to those high-minded ideals. After all, the company was originally created by the notorious Marc Rich, who in 1983 was indicted in the United States on dozens of criminal counts relating to racketeering, income tax evasion, wire fraud, and violation of economic sanctions against Iran.
Facing the possibility of many years in prison, Rich fled the country and spent years eluding a team of U.S. marshals tasked with bringing him back to face trial. While he was a fugitive, his companies paid millions in civil penalties. Not only did Rich avoid being extradited but he received a highly controversial pardon from Bill Clinton on his last day in office.
Glencore’s dubious behavior could even be seen in its press release announcing the resolution of the criminal cases. In it, the company stated that Glencore cooperated with the investigations, whereas the DOJ release emphasized “the company’s failure to voluntarily and timely disclose the conduct to the department.” In other words, Glencore is trying to take credit for having cooperated only after it was caught. It is appropriate that the resolution of the case includes a requirement that the company retain an independent compliance monitor for three years.
The Glencore case comes on the heels of DOJ’s multi-billion-dollar resolution of a case involving the financial services company Allianz, which was accused of engaging in a massive scheme to lure pension funds into complex investments that ended up generating massive losses.
These two resolutions have not attracted a lot of attention in the U.S., where neither Allianz nor Glencore is a household name. Yet the cases are indications that the Biden DOJ may very well be making good on its promise to get tougher on corporate crime after the lax enforcement during the Trump years. I look forward to seeing the book thrown at some large domestic companies as well.