Keats greeted autumn with a paean to the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”; the non-ferrous metal community greets it with the London Metal Exchange Dinner. Although this year we’re already well into autumn before the festivities begin. Has it ever been after the clock change? Certainly not as far as I can recall. Anyway, I suppose fruitfulness - sometimes mellow, sometimes not - is what the attendees at the various - and varied - breakfasts, lunches, dinners, meetings, seminars, lectures and quiet chats are all seeking. The week is a kind of blend of celebration of the year’s performance and a significant part of the negotiation of the contracts for the subsequent year that will hopefully cause much celebration a year later.
It’s changed over the years. What started as a dinner for golf-playing insiders has morphed into a week of work and play for any parts of the industry that care to participate. We’ve all heard the stories - strain on hotels, restaurants, cabs, any number of other services - as the world’s mining, marketing, trading, broking and investing communities hit town. In recent years, some of the excesses have even started to appear in the gossip columns of parts of the press.
I’ve participated in about 35 of these events - makes me an upper mid-termer, I would guess - and in that time the changes have been quite sharply defined. Back at the beginning of the eighties, for example, the final stages of the nationalisation (or expropriation, depending on your point of view) of large parts of the Chilean copper industry was in the recent past, under the government of Salvador Allende. (Incidentally, there is a great scene in the film “The Motor-Cycle Diaries” where Che and his buddy meet face to face with the guards at an Anaconda mine; it’s a good film, but you’ve got to look through the anti-capitalist polemic. The guards are grim-faced thugs, in contrast to happy-go-lucky Che…) Indeed, one of my first memories of the Dinner was the occasion when there were demonstrations outside the Grosvenor in support of striking Chilean miners (Allende by that time gone and replace by Augusto Pinochet) as the diners in their black ties arrived.
As well as global, macro changes of that sort, shifts of power in the metals world have been reflected in the make-up of the dinner. In the eighties, and even through the early part of the nineties, the brokers ruled; the place to be was at a broker’s table in the Great Room, and those same brokers’ entertainment suites in the Grosvenor itself attracted many of the diners. With the increasing influence of large corporates, physical trading houses and banks over what had been the inner world of the brokers, the Dinner took on a different feel, the various outside dinners and receptions and parties playing an ever-increasing role in the festivities. That was also, of course, a reflection of the long-term decline in Ring-Dealing broker numbers.
And on the serious side, how many of the guest speeches do we all actually remember? For me, there have been two that stick out, for very different reasons. One was the Coca-Cola executive who told us about the tears of joy in the eyes of the population of Budapest (or it may have been Prague) when they first saw the Coke trucks powering into their city after the fall of communism. Mmm, well, possible, I suppose, with Coke representing freedom; but I suspect more likely to have been the freedom itself they were welcoming, though. The other, slightly more serious, was by Peter Mandelson, just a few years ago. Now, it’s strange for me to agree with him about pretty much anything, and indeed I was taken aback when he was announced as the speaker, given the rumours - totally unsubstantiated, I have to add - of murky industry relationships. All that aside, though, he said something that is worth bearing in mind, through all the eating and drinking and conversational excess of the week; he reminded the audience that metals are one of the most basic essentials of our developed society. Without them, manufactured goods would be pretty much gone. I’m not going to be evangelical about the metals business, but it is important. What we all do - mining, trading, broking, investing - has a profound and direct effect on the lives of the world. So enjoy the celebratory as well as the cerebral elements of the week.