For nearly all my working career in the City I have been closely involved with the LME and reporting from its open-outcry trading floor, the world-famous ‘Ring’ – I first went down there in 1975, and although the LME has moved shop twice since then that type of trading remains essentially unchanged.
Open-outcry markets in general and the LME in particular were an eye-opener back then – everyone dressed and looked like Regan and Carter from ‘The Sweeney’, with nostrils and trousers flared. I actually came from a trading background, but that was the old London Stock Exchange, where business was carried out in an unhurried, genteel manner – ‘my word is my bond’ was the unwritten law, the buying and selling of stocks and shares was very gentlemanlike and the odd bowler hat was still to be seen around Throgmorton Street.
Not so when I joined a world-famous news agency, whose name rhymes with ‘loiters’. Within days I was despatched to the cluster of markets in and around the City, where the catchphrase was ‘my yell is my bond’. That applied to a bewildering array of markets that included cocoa, coffee, sugar, rubber, oil products, and oddities like wool, tea and ship chartering. And, of course, there was the LME.
They all had one thing in common – I didn’t have the first clue what was going on in any of them and why grown men were carrying on in this way. But, and this is where my trader background kicked in, I figured out that this was actually a logical and very efficient way to do commodity business – none more so than in metals with the system of daily prompt dates and warehousing that carries on to this day.
Back then in Leadenhall Market opposite ‘The Lamb’ public house the familiar ring with its red leather seats was more densely occupied. Now there are just 12 ring-dealing members, but in the late-1970s that number was nearer 30. Some of these companies are long gone now, but their names were redolent of the LME’s origins and founding fathers – Rudolf Wolff and Co, Lazarus Metals, H.P. Thompson and Philip and Lion. For many of these firms, descendants of their founders even worked as traders, and in the latter’s case still do.
The traders, too, were older than their modern-day counterparts and often senior directors of their firms – wheeling and dealing well into their fifth and sixth decades. So at any given time you could see one particular trader (he’ll remain nameless) who was deaf in one ear. He would be merrily trading away with half the ring, while the other half were increasingly red in the face desperately trying to get his attention.
Or how about another nameless trader (you know who you are) in the last minute of a very hectic official copper ring. At just after 12:34 as he upped the volume his dentures flew out of his mouth and landed in the middle of the ring. Business carried on until the bell at 12:35, which of course was the signal for copper to finish and said trader to retrieve his teeth, amid the delayed laughter.
Graham (whoops! Nearly gave his name away) was lucky, as his top-set did not land in the centrepiece of the ring – a copperplate spittoon. Difficult to imagine now, but back then smoking was allowed in business premises – with the start of the kerb ‘light-up’ time. Discarded cigarettes were routinely and expertly flicked into the spittoon, which smouldered away while trading was going on – not the nicest place for your top-set to land in.
And as there was no air-conditioning then – the ceiling propeller-style fans merely moved the stale air around – a side-door into an adjacent avenue was often open for fresh air. Not only air came in that door – the occasional dog, Leadenhall Market’s resident tramp and even charity sellers would pop their head in.
Despite all these distractions, the ring then, as it does now, functioned professionally. The LME clocked up its 100th birthday in 1978, and not long after decamped from its original home to plush new settings in Plantation House – a stone’s throw away. But that’s another story for another day.