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This metal life – Till Death Do Us Trade

There is a kind of mad obsession that gradually seizes and grips the organism once introduced to metal trading.

I have seen it take a number of guises. I was thinking today of Jim, (I can’t remember his surname) when I came across the words ‘Wimbledon Stadium’ in an autobiography. This was of course Wimbledon, the Dog Track, not the Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Jim promised to take me to the Dogs and said I would have a great time. I think I was about 22 as it was my first job in the metals business where answering the phone would introduce you to a cast characters as long as the “Pickwick Papers.”

From this vantage point, I regret, I no longer remember what Jim did for a living, but I just remember that he warmed to me because I would be polite (I knew nothing else) and gave him time as he listened to the prices coming from the ring on the London Metal Exchange.

For whatever reason, his particular proclivity was Zinc over and above the few other base metals being traded at that time, which included copper, tin, lead and Nickel
(which had just been introduced in 1979). The Aluminium contract was still unborn, and plastics…Well no one would have dreamt of it.

Jim, as a cockney I suppose, was one of the quite large constituency of metals people for whom the LME was a bit more dog track than high finance, and a lot less like the fearsomely complicated and exquisitely crafted hedging tool it could be in some people’s hands.
At 22, and just learning, it was Jim, and those like him, who made me feel as if I was useful.

I do realise that others of the same age might well have been to war or even be running their own companies, but, over-educated as I was, I had taken a side-turning from my expected path in life, and was struggling for air amongst the swirl of numbers or sinking under the argot of metals terms such as contango, backwardation, borrow & lend.

So, for me, to this day, more than 30 years later Zinc reminds me of Jim and it particularly reminds me of him because one day he suddenly got ill. He’d always been a smoker and others in the office had been perhaps understandably less charitable about his halitosis which, as far as I know, is not a condition but a pompous sounding word for bad breath.

He’d got lung cancer, I’d been told, and it was all very quick. The last few calls came from a pay phone at Kingston hospital. He was desperate to know how the Zinc market was doing and I tried to tell him as best I could. I didn’t have much experience of death or even serious illness in those days and I couldn’t understand why Jim didn’t have more important things on his mind. Why would he trade if he was so ill – because he couldn’t possibly spend or use the money? But I had missed the point, of course. The market was what he did and loved, and he knew nothing else. After a few more calls, that was it. But I’ve never forgotten him and never shall. The market was his life.

Anthony Lipmann

16 July 2010