Part 9: Weighing words (not metal)
Retired metal merchant, Anthony Lipmann, illuminates trading for the young entering the world of metals.
It’s a funny old thing – the metal trade. I’m often asked what skills make the perfect metal merchant. Metallurgical knowledge? Economics? Maths? Languages? Geography? Geology? Physics or Chemistry? Nous?
But I can’t give a proper answer. You could choose any of the above and yet none would be the elixir. There is one piece of advice I can give with confidence to all newly minted metal merchants, which is to learn to use words wisely; to weigh them in precise troy ounces.
Arriving straight from university into my first job at brokers M.C.Brackenbury & Co in 1979, burdened by my English Literature degree, I was more of an essayist than a metal trader. I was delighted when my bosses put me to work on the evening metal report, which I soon turned into great tragedy. With a lot of poorly grasped concepts of trade, I found it quite easy, in all ignorance, to pontificate widely. At one point, at the inception of the new LME Nickel contract, I wrote a marvellous piece analysing which brands were on warrant. The office was soon inundated with enquiries about what premia were required to obtain brands in specific locations – answers I was unable to provide.
Looking back over decades now, it seems to me that what’s important for a new entrant to know is that some words in normal life have different values in our industry. Take the simple innocuous word ‘prompt’. In the English language you might use it in connection with, say, a timely DPD/Amazon delivery. In the MMTA (Minor Metals Trade Association) rules, however, the word ‘prompt’ is defined as 10 calendar days; a definition created when trade disputes were beginning to occur as a result of the term’s inexactitude in contracts.
Another minefield is the word ‘offer’. In the UK, the word ‘offer’ is routinely used in the housing market to describe the action of a ‘buyer’ providing a suggested ‘purchase price’ for a property. [A house buyer usually tells the Estate Agent a price they would ‘offer’ for a piece of real estate]. In the metal trade however an ‘offer’ is always ‘an offer to sell’, while ‘a proposal to buy’ is always expressed as a ‘bid’. Level one of metal trading is to learn, and never omit, to use such terms in their correct context.
Politeness connected to words also goes a long way. I believe that topping and tailing all communications is cardinal; its importance is in inverse proportion to the inconvenience for the WhatsApp/email/text generation. Is it really so hard to pause to type ‘Dear so-and-so’, and ‘Kind regards’? I get it that the young prefer ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or simply no niceties at all. But in business? This is not just a defence of fuddy-duddyism but a charter for clarity in a business where small errors cost financial lives. Best advice to the newhop – don’t be casual, don’t even be jokey (some irony simply doesn’t translate), don’t use jargon, excise all acronyms unless you explain them in full at their first use. I ask my staff to write as if they are communicating with their rather decrepit and half blind, humourless great aunt – or me. If it passes this test, it’s OK and will be understood.
Finally, if angry, please learn to resort to euphemism. I have found the word ‘perplexed’ to be a useful catch-all for apoplexy. Should, for example, your prompt but delayed delivery of tantalum 1”x1” shot-blasted pieces have a weight loss of 33 kgs upon weighing, sampling and analysis, and should some parts have attachments, paint, oil, ‘foreign bodies’ (a word best used only in a metal context when referring to non-metallics such as rubber gloves and wood off the factory floor) do not write that you are really ‘p…..off’. Delete that first email and write as follows, ‘Dear xx, we have well received the delivery of Tantalum as contracted under order no. xxx and are perplexed to report that upon inspection, weighing, sampling and analysis, we have discovered this parcel to be a load of ‘x’, Kind regards xxx’
Written by Anthony Lipmann