A short trip round the corner

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The Independent Online
Ever since there have been markets people have been trying to corner them - the best way of making a fat profit in any business is to get a monopoly, and in commodities you do that by controlling as many of them as you can.

"People are trying to corner markets every week of the year," says Stephen Fay, author of Beyond Greed, the story of the Hunt family's attempt to corner the silver market. "Regulators are there to prevent them but they don't often stop them trying."

Those who attempt to corner markets tend to be larger-than-life characters with a notably high mortality rate. James Fisk was an old-fashioned rogue who issued fraudulent stock in US railroads and then, with Jay Gould, tried to corner the gold market. The scheme unfolded dramatically on Black Friday - 24 September, 1869 - when the gold price plunged. Fisk was eventually shot dead in a quarrel over a woman.

In 1888, a Parisian banker called Denfert Rochereau tried to corner the world copper market. He failed, too - but had the compensation of having a Metro station named after him.

Chicago is the real home of the corner, Mr Fay says. "The 19th-century grey market was littered with attempts," he says. The film Trading Places was a handy guide to potential cornerers. It told the tale of a bid to wrap up the Florida orange juice market on the Chicago exchange.

Almost anything that is traded can, in theory, be cornered. Between 1955 and 1980, there were attempts - in Chicago and New York - to corner eggs, onions, soya beans, potatoes and vegetable oil.

Silver corners have been notably spectacular. In 1907, Chunilal Saraya, head of the Indian Specie Bank, launched a campaign to corner the market. He wanted to force British officials to come to him when they next needed to issue silver rupees - and to pay his high price. But the India Office in London started buying the metal secretly, undermining his monopoly and causing him, in 1913, to shoot himself.

In 1979, the American oil billionaire, Nelson Bunker Hunt, and his brother, William Herbert, got together with two Saudi princes to try and corner the market. At one point they controlled, physically or through contracts, four out of every five ounces of silver mined in 1979. At the peak, in January, 1980, their hoard was worth $14bn. Then on Silver Thursday, 27 March, 1980, the bubble burst and the price collapsed from pounds 21 an ounce to pounds 5. There was a happier outcome for the anti-heroes though: they were humiliated, but at least remained rich - and alive.

We do not usually say the Central Selling Organisation has cornered the diamond market. But as noted in the One Minute Expert on page 1, that is what it has done - albeit legally.