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Old metal men never die, they simply melt away

As younger, fresher, shinier metal men and women begin to take on the metal mantle, they have every right to do things their way. I hope they do. But as they walk towards the bright digitised future that awaits, is there not a duty for them to consider if there are any off-cuts of the past that might be worth recycling?

I am put in mind of such matters today following lunch with one of the older members of our merchanting trade. At 92, Herbert Haber, (one of his early bosses told him his real name – Haberberg – was too long for the metal trade, so he changed it), is one of the last of the post war group of talented metal merchants still roaming North London. The death of Siggy Sternberg late last year (founder of Mountstar: Stern/Star Berg/Mountain) robbed us of another.

But, still in touching distance of the stories of this era, what have these glorious, sparring metal merchants to teach us?

As metal traders of our day wrestle with such mundanities as the EU Chemical Directive, the Basel Convention on wastes, Non-Proliferation, IMO hazard classes, and lie awake at night worrying about Health and Safety, it is not impossible to lose sight of what it once meant to be a metal merchant.

The milieu that is past and passing in Europe, whether Anglo-Saxon or Jewish, centred upon the experience of the Second World War and Cold War. We can just catch the tail end of their era before it is gone. For metal merchants of my generation, the central event was the ending of the Soviet Union. It is beginning to look likely that the theme for the present generation will be the re-birth of nationalism and protectionism – but we might be at the ‘negative-in-the-dark-room’ stage, rather than the final print.

If the above comes to pass, many assumptions based on the false god of globalisation may have to be dispelled. It may no longer be assumed that goods will move unimpeded across political regions, or even Europe. It may not be assumed that the tenets of trade as laid down in Europe, as if they were FIFA regulations on the off-side rule, will be equally respected by opposing nations such as China and USA. What, for example, would happen if one large trading block decided to outlaw goods originating from the beneficial owners of certain companies in a country that it found distasteful? Hold on a minute – isn’t that what we do to Russia? But what if, next time, it is the Chinese who decide they will not deal with owners of corporations they do not happen to like in UK, France, Germany, USA or Japan?

The men who came out of the WWII era had vivid experience of societal collapse. Haber got to Britain 4 days before the outbreak of war and was sent to a farm in Hertfordshire where he learnt Yiddish, purely because the person he was thrown together with was a Polish Jewish medic who could not speak English. He was unable to continue his studies because his money had run out. With no control over his destiny, Haber was seconded to making munitions and unable to fight until 1944 when he was sent with the Jewish Brigade to Italy and experienced trench warfare face to face with an SS regiment at the River Senio. I am aware that when Haber says he speaks Yiddish he is a living museum not just to a metal trade that has passed, but to a language spoken by a people who no longer exist. In the immediate aftermath of war, each weekend for two years, Haber used his Yiddish to communicate with survivors of Belsen whom he assisted to re-assimilate into post war life.

Of such stuff are some metal people made. Haber met my father in the 1950s when my Dad was working for Ayrton & Partners.  In 1949 Haber was working for Oscar Philipp’s Derby & Co;  he was just another young person trying to make his post-war way, and had been working late at night in the mail room, when the boss, Nat Isaacs, came out of his office and said ‘Who are you?’ Isaacs had been co-opted by the UK’s Ministry of Supply during the war owing to his knowledge of tungsten and molybdenum which were both essential to the war effort. In the late 1940’s early 1950s the British Government formed British Tungsten Limited to ensure supply of this strategically important metal. Three companies were appointed to manage the entity – H.A.Watson & Co, Metal Traders Ltd and Derby & Co.  So Haber asked Isaacs if there was anything he could read about wolfram ore to improve his knowledge. Universities did not teach tungsten trading then, and not now either. Isaacs obliged and later asked the young Haber about what he had read. And that was how Haber ended up trading tungsten in a period of high drama in the tungsten world as Britain entered the Korean War.

As strategic as tungsten is today (witness the recent re-opening of tungsten mining in the UK near Plymouth), it was doubly so all through the 1950s. What made it more difficult was that the world’s biggest producer, China, was embargoed by the USA. But as Europe needed tungsten (as stockpiles had been run down) companies such as H.C. Starck turned to traders to fill the hole. It seems almost impertinent to suggest that doing anything other than going to China could have been contemplated, but that is to forget quite how closed to world trade China in the 1950s was. It was merchants of Haber’s era who began the process of breaking down trade barriers.

By the mid-to-late 1960s North Korea wanted to sell lead pigs. The lead, in this case, was high in gold which in those days was at a fixed price on the world market under the Bretton Woods Agreement. Haber had heard that the USA might relax the gold price’s relation to the dollar which would mean the price could in due course rise. So, he offered the North Koreans a floating price which could be better for them in the long run. But they refused, not wanting to base the gold price on a number determined – as they saw it – by their geopolitical enemy. The international gold price was duly unleashed in 1971 but the Koreans would not depart from their low fixed price.  The contract ran unimpeded for 12 years.  The conclusion to be drawn is that in the not too distant future nations may again pursue policies which will cause self-harm. We assume Britain will not be one of them, but what makes us so sure?

Metal merchants occasionally dream of trades like the one above. They are the product not of algorithms, or of spread sheets, not of research or data collection, but of chutzpah amid the ancient barter of nations. Haber was one of many of that era to do trade with countries that those at home thought of as pariah states. North Korea was one, East Germany at one time was another, and so too Russia, Romania and many others.

My bet for the near future is that political stupidity might not have gone entirely out of fashion. It is unfortunately such a dead cert that there is no bookie in his right mind who would give odds on it. But the madness will raise opportunities which could require all the old skills of language, nation-busting trust, flexibility, risk and balls.

‘Good luck to the young’, is what I say. ‘You might need it.’

Published February 8th 2017 on www.lord-copper.com