Private Empire by Steve Coll

Book review: Private Empire'Private Empire' is an objective examination of the world's second largest company, and is all the better for it, says Matthew Partridge.


By Steve CollPublished by Allen Lane

Vampire squid' investment bank Goldman Sachs has become used to being attacked for putting profits before ethics. So it's ironic that the 2012 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year has gone to Steve Coll's critical look at ExxonMobil, a company that is perhaps even more controversial.

The energy giant is the world's second-largest listed company (eclipsed only by Apple) with a market value of more than $400bn. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power charts its fortunes from the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker crash, through the 1999 merger of Exxon and Mobil, to the present day.

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The main theme emerging from the book is that ExxonMobil has had a "fraught relationship with the US government, and really any government with which it interacts", says David Biello in Foreign Policy. On the one hand it has bitterly resisted any attempt at environmental regulation and allegedly pushed laws on the disclosure of oil reserves to their limits.

However, Coll also shows "ExxonMobil turning to the US government time and again for favours", such as asking the State Department to help Chad "renegotiate a contract with the World Bank to enable more spending on weaponry and more oil pumping by Exxon".

Coll paints a picture of a company that is as powerful as a small country, says Adam Hochschild in The New York Times. This includes military power as well as economic and political clout. "ExxonMobil has its own armies and, in these days of outsourcing, also hires those of others." For example, "the Nigerian police sported Mobil's familiar red flying horse" logo.

Yet despite the book's implicit criticisms of the company, it remains an objective examination, rather than a polemic, and is all the more powerful for it. "Coll could have gone the Michael Moore route, marshaling his reams of interview transcripts and WikiLeaks finds into a bilious, scorched-earth indictment," notes David Kamp in Businessweek.

Instead, it is "meticulously prepared as if for trial, a lawyerly accumulation of information that lets the facts speak for themselves". Indeed, "a fan of [libertarian philosopher] Ayn Rand might read this... as a heroic narrative".

The Daily Telegraph's Ian Thomson has a few quibbles, claiming that "some of the information is erroneous". However, the "admirably balanced analysis" and quality of the writing overcomes any minor concerns: the book "has the immediacy of a good thriller" and is "authoritative, lively and seldom dull".

Lionel Barber, editor of the FT and one of the judges on the award panel, agrees. Private Empire is "forensic, nuanced and extremely well written. Through a series of compelling narratives, it covers Exxon's huge geopolitical footprint and its influence."

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll is published by Allen Lane (£25).

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri