Charles Rasher, McMahon Iron & Metal, Mt. Vernon, New York. Interivewed March 1998. Courtesy of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Transcription by Carmen Venable.
Rasher: When I was about five years old I went to my father’s scrapyard, ’cause that’s when he bought [McMann Iron and Metal Company?]. And he had somebody breaking up cast iron and– and I saw rock bottom. and then of course growing up, I worked there summers.
Interviewer: So you started when you were five year– the first exposure was five years old?
Rasher: About 1925.
Interviewer: And McMann was dealing with [??] mainly at that time?
Rasher: Well it was a little scrapyard.
Interviewer: It was located where in–
Rasher: In Yonkers, New York.
Interviewer: In Yonkers.
Rasher: And it wasn’t long afterwards that they got involved with Phelps Dodge and he started handling insulated wire and cable, with the byproducts– lead, copper, and of course even aluminum in those days.
Interviewer: Is there a story about how we got related to Phelps Dodge or did it just happen?
Rasher: That’s a very interesting story. Uh, he bought John McMann Iron And Metal Company from a gentleman who had a heart attack and he was getting out of the business, and it seems like for years he was trying to get the Phelps Dodge business–
Interviewer: Mr. McMann tried? [Rasher nods.] Okay.
Rasher: And at that time,Phelps Dodge wasn’t happy with who they were doing business with, so somebody suggested speaking to Mr. McMann. My father was there at the time, and he said, “Well, I’m selling the business but I think this gentleman could handle it.” Because originally my father was a copper broker in the wor– in the [Woolworth? 02:19 ] building. In about 1922 I think, he uh, got caught in the market and he had to start all over again.
Interviewer: So, Metals Trading was not new?
Rasher: And of course in those days you didn’t go bankrupt. It took him a long time to pay back, but he managed to get the business going. I in turn went to school, and of course, went to NYU at night. I worked in a brokerage house during the day.
Interviewer: This was metal brokers–
Rasher: 1936 to 1941, I worked for a commodity house.
Rasher: Trading. Not trading– I was a runner.
Interviewer: Tell– tell us what a runner did in those days.
Rasher: Well, they just delivered messages. [Chuckles] And stocks and bonds and–
Interviewer: This was a securities broker–
Rasher: Yes. A [???03:29 ] company, was Bernard Brookes’ firm, and as it turned out, my immediate boss, uh, Jerry [???03:40 ] became the first chairman of the Commodity Exchange in 1933 when they started. And, one of my distant cousins who got me the job as a runner was– later became a member of the stock exchange and was on the commodity exchange. And in 1959 I wanted to know all about commodities because it seems like– in the scrap business– the price of copper was on the basis of the commodity exchange. And I took a course, and I– he suggested I become a member. So in 1961 I bought a seat for $500, and I became a member of the commodity exchange.
Interviewer: The seat was $500.
Rasher: [Unintelligible 04:48 ] But I stayed in the scrap business–
Interviewer: During the whole time.
Rasher: Yes. But– and as much as I majored in advertising and marketing in college, and basically that’s what I wanted to do, but of course I couldn’t because my father died and I had a wife and kids and a family, and my mother to support. So I applied a lot of the marketing to the Trade Association. and thats how I got very active in National Association of Waste Material Dealers and then later National Association of Recycling Industries. And then I joined the Institute of Scrap Iron and Steel, about 1954 or five (1955). So I’ve been an active member of Trade Association since 1948. And um, of course, in the business, I could see a tremendous change from when a workman loaded the trucks by hand and we had a loose load of scrap copper to go down to the refinery to one day, somebody walked in with a forklift from Heister and they said, “Here, we’ll leave this here with you with some pallets. We’ll come back in a month. If you don’t like it, we’ll take it back.”
Well, of course, once we used the pallets and the forklift, the men weren’t lifting the copper anymore, and that was a change. And then of course, we went in for briquetting, and we designed a– insulated wire burner, which we used for about twenty years. But of course, with air pollution, it became obsolete. But we did a lot of stripping, and we– and we were just as big in insulated wire as any independent scrap dealer in the country. And then we became involved in aluminum. I’m proud to say that I was at General Electric in 1946 and ’47, and showed them how to segregate the different types of scrap, because my uncle, Leo London, was– in the ’30s– was with U.S. Reduction, so I had quite a background. Anyway, one thing led to another and I was able to bring up five kids and sent them all through college, and they’re all professionals now and doing fine. I’m still active in McMann Iron and Metal Company as a broker. But I’m very active in the Commodity Exchange because I’ve been on the board for about ten years now.
Interviewer: I want to go back, because I– you’re very unusual in the sense of having this seat on the exchange, and involved really in the scrap business and in the commodities business at the same time–
Rasher: Well, as the article there will say, I– I was very instrumental, after I got on the Commodity Exchange, because I was just about the first scrap dealer that was ever elected, and they weren’t too happy with that at the time, but there was no way that they could blackball me, and so I was immediately put on the membership committee, and I have been on the membership committee since 1963. And I brag that I haven’t missed a meeting.
Interviewer: How often do they meet?
Rasher: Meet once a month, and this Monday is– I go back– my term as Vice Chairman. And I think practically everybody on the exchange outside about five members have come before me, including the head of the Federal Reserve who was a member for about five years, Alan Greenspan.
Interviewer: So thirty-five years and you haven’t missed a meeting.
Rasher: I’ve been a member since December, uh– October 13, 1961.
Interviewer: ’61. Wow.
Rasher: So I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do all these things, and of course that I– I’m in health– in good health. I’ll be 80 this summer, and I hope that I’ll [laughs] continue to do what I’m doing. I’m downtown every morning at 6:30, and I keep busy.
Interviewer: You still stay involved with McMann?
Rasher: Well, McMann is still there, and–
Interviewer: And still does copper mainly?
Rasher: [Nods] Well, we do brokerage.
Rasher: And we– we do some consultant work too.
Interviewer: I see.
Rasher: And of course I’m still a member of Trade Association.
Interviewer: Tell me– tell me how the um, how– what do you think was different, looking at ComEx from the point of view of having been in the scrap business as against how the normal– the usual person who’s on ComEx, sees trade. Did the fact you had all this experience in scrap make you different? Did it give you an advantage?
Rasher: Well, as you well know, over half the copper that’s produced in the world is from scrap, and up until recently the only copper that was hedged was a scrap copper, so that was almost one hundred percent. And that was the custom smelters; they– produces the copper, pegged the price at a certain price. They had 30 cent copper for three years. It fluctuated, the custom smelter price. So, that was what required the hedging, not so much– now, because now, they all hedge. All the producers’ prices fluctuate. I was instrumental in starting the aluminum contract about ten years ago, and I worked at it for five years, and we just couldn’t book the forces that wanted a stay in London. However, I’m now Vice Chairman oft the Aluminum Advisory Committee and we’re working hard, and we have quite a few of the members from Institute of Scrap Recycling on our Advisory Committee. And we’re hoping to get this contract going. It probably will be activated within two years. We have a– added strength in ComEx and New York American Steel Exchange merged. There’s a [???13:17 ] division, with the energy products and platinum, and there’s a ComEx division with gold, silver, and copper, and the options. But, I find that practically every person involved in recycling is interested in the hedging and the futures market because basically it’s always been fluctuating market. I’ve seen copper prices since 1936 go up and down like a rollercoaster, as my good friend Mac Cottley used to say. I got involved in the National Defense Executive Reserve in 1961 ad I was in the Copper Division there.
Interviewer: Tell us– tell us what happened– are there any interesting stories with the Reserve?
Rasher: Well, we had our New York/New Jersey chapter and I was Chairman for three years, and we used to meet up at the Arden House, up in Harriman, New York– it’s part of Columbia University, and we met in Washington and we had, in those days during the Cold War, practically– most of your members were part of the Reserve. And we were there to– well, the idea of the National Defense Executive Reserve was that uh– World War II, after Pearl Harbor, they had to call down– they– people, and the business defense, and it took them maybe six months to a year to get going and train them. And when President Eisenhower was thinking of a National Defense, he said we don’t have the time to train people anymore because of atomic warfare and the suddenness of a war. So they formed the Reserve and we were training for– and I’ve been training since 1961.
Interviewer: Thankfully you haven’t had to use it.
Rasher: Just the– six months ago, they terminated the National Defense Executive’s name–
Rasher: –and they gave–
Interviewer: It doesn’t exist?
Rasher: –and they gave us all medals. We were down at Fort Meyer and we had a ceremony. But, we’re basically part of a Federal Emergency and– because I’m on that roster and–
Interviewer: Were there any funny things that happened as part of the reserve, or was it all pretty serious?
Rasher: Well, something that was really exciting was that they called a meeting, like six months prior to when we were in Washington, and that night when we sat at the Washing– the Statler Hilton– the old Statler Hilton, I remember they made the announcement that we were under Cuban– Cuban Missile and– and all our families were calling down wondering whether the war was on. It was just–
Interviewer: You were all there when the–
Rasher: Yes. It was just a coincidence.
Rasher: And, with all the training we had, and even with the shortage in oil and all, they never called us down, because they said that before they’d call us down they’d have to use all of the– uh– the civil defense– government employees.
Interviewer: How did you learn the whole hedging business, as complicated as it is? Did you learn it from your dad? Did you learn it when you were at the, um, at the, uh, Hence Company or– how did you learn the intricacies of hedging?
Rasher: Well, basically, any businessman does– it’s something you do that you don’t realize you do. After all, in hedging, like the housewife when she know that there’s a coffee shortage, she’ll go to the store and buy four bags instead of two. And you multiply that by, uh, 100 million bag, and you have a tremendous increase in price. And vice versa when they decide that the coffee price is going down, instead of them buying the two bags, they’ll buy one. And it goes the other extent– so you get a built in chart in your– you can just see it. However, like I said, when I took the course in 1961 from Jerry Gold who wrote the book, I, um– and he wondered why I took the course because I was President of the Metal Dealers Division and he sat on the [???] with me a couple years before that. And he said, “Well, you could teach the course.” And when he gave the exam I just didn’t know what he was talking about when he talked about spreads and straddles and– and hedging and such. I– this was– I just didn’t know the terminology. So I learned from that. But, it’s like playing golf. You just have to keep playing and you play, and you just– like the people from Phelps Dodge said, they’ve been around for fifty years and there’s always something new and they just can’t figure.
Interviewer: With- with all the intricacies involved with hedging, you must have some wonderful stories about metals or about a particular hedge that you tried, or somebody else that you know tried. There must be some wonderful, wonderful stories.
Rasher: Well of course we had the– the Hunt brothers that thought if they brought up all the silver they’d put the price up, and silver at that time was trading at about $2 an ounce, and they pushed it up to $48 an ounce, so that when we went away to the West Coast Trade Association meeting, we took all our silver from the house and put it in our safe in the scrap yard, ’cause when the government went after them, the price went all way down. And of course that pushed gold up to $800 an ounce from $200 an ounce. And now it’s back to 285. That’s just about its low for the last three years. I think there have been some funny stories. I walked into the old exchange in the ’60s and I said, “How is the price of copper?” because we always checked with London which is four hours before us, so at seven in the morning before our market opens we can London market.
Somebody said, “Oh, copper is up two cents. What happened?”
Well, two fellas were caught uh– trying to blow up the bridge in Zambia, or Zaire or– in fact, one of them was a member of our exchange. One committed suicide, and the other one was put in jail for a year.
But when I walked in and heard the story, I said, “Gee, what will they think of next?” I didn’t believe that was the story– was just a joke. Why is the copper market going to blow up the bridge in Zambia? Oh, um, I guess there’s many stories.
Interviewer: I’d like to hear another one. That’s a good one, that’s a good one.
Rasher: It’s difficult to recall.
Interviewer: What happened on the exchange during the Hunt brothers situation? What– what were the people on– the members of the exchange doing or thinking?
Rasher: Well, the reason the market went up so much, if you’re an exchange as a local– that’s– just trade for your own account, or anybody connected with them, like you for instance, they say, well, everybody’s buying– the Hunts brothers are– Hunts– are buying silver, you’ll buy some too. So everybody bought it. A lot of people made a lot of money. U think the ones that lost the biggest amount were the professionals. Bage (?) at the time kept selling, and they were in for a billion dollars, and the losses were flying right and left.
Interviewer: That’s interesting.
Rasher: We have a Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is in Washington, and the interesting part of it is about 1983, they all thought I was over the hill, so they recommended me to be a Commissioner, and I was backed by Senator D’Amato, and Head of the Republican Party of New York State, and a lot of people on the Exchange. Well, the big problem was that they had just picked somebody from New York, and they said the good news is I’m next in line but the bad news is that they’d taken somebody from Iowa. But I don’t know whether I would have lasted more than a year because (chuckles) you can get really bored in that job. I’m much happier where I am on the Board. I would’ve had to sell my seat.
Interviewer: Sure. See, and would you trade every day?
Rasher: Well, I’m there every day–
Interviewer: You’re there every day.
Rasher: I’m doing something or I’m trading for somebody.
Interviewer: Do you have– do you have any comments on, um, Mr. Buffett’s activity in the silver market now?
Rasher: No, in fact, I guess all I know is what I read in the newspapers.
Interviewer: What do the people think about it?
Rasher: There are all sorts of people that do crazy things, and there’s also people that aren’t too honest, that get fined. We’ve had members that have been fined–
Rasher: –one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand. We’ve had a could of members that have been banned for life.
Interviewer: Because of what they did?
Rasher: The Commodity Future of Trading Commission has a lot of, uh– the real– like a police force, and they’re judge and jury. There is some recourse but really you’re guilty, and you gotta prove yourself innocent. [Chuckles.]
Interviewer: Tell me what– what you would consider one of the most exciting things you’ve experienced in your life in this business. What do you– what sticks out in your mind as a real milestone?
Rasher: Well, I can’t remember one.
Interviewer: Well, give me two. That’s fine.
Rasher: See, I got out of the service after four and a half years, and I was no sooner out when my father died and I took over the business. And I just became married, and with three kids, and I lost my wife in an automobile accident, and the transition was rough. And then I got remarried, and somebody burnt our place down. So I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and the market’s been up and down. But, I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve been weather– been able to weather the storm. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had good wives and good kids, and good friends.
Interviewer: I know that. Sure good friends, that’s for sure. [Audio and video cut out.] How about the happiest things that happen in this business? Things that really made you feel good? Anything you can recall? Any particular incident? Any particular trade that was unusual?
Rasher: Well, I think that the Trade Association meetings, and all the people I know, and even today, just seeing– like, I just saw Lenny Levine– I– he was a baby when I first met him, with International Minerals and Metals, and– his wife, and now his kids and his grandchildren. I mean, and– Because Matt Cutler I knew because he was friendly with my uncle, US Reduction. It’s the people. It’s really the people. But you know, and of course, knowing you, I’ve known you right from the start, and um, I knew Sy Whiteberg [?? 29:33] when he was with the old Daily Metal Reporter and he used to have me drive him home–
Interviewer: Oh really!
Rasher: –Yes, and Bob Gillenberg used to take my picture. And Sy Whitesberg. What a tremendous friend, as you could well see. So, it’s the people. And, I’ve been very fortunate that–
Interviewer: [Unintelligible, speaking to someone else off camera.]
Rasher: I grew up in the Depression, and I– I saw my father really lose practically everything, and I made up my mind that I’m going to be very conservative. People have said I’m too conservative. But I don’t know, I’m lucky, I’m solving.
Interviewer: Well yeah, it’s interesting to think that– that you have decided to get into the commodities business, which most people, most– most traders– most people in the market would think the stock market is speculative, and here you’re in the commodity market, which in most people’s mind is the opposite of conservative, so– so you must feel much more comfortable dealing with commodities.
Rasher: Well, not many people understand the idea– the meaning of hedge. A hedge is taking the opposite position. It’s the same way as if I have a hundred thousand dollars worth of stock, I’ll have a hundred thousand dollars in government bonds. So if a stock goes to nothing, the government bond will still be a hundred thousand. And if you are very careful to hedge and you don’t go overboard, and don’t deviate from that bonds, I feel that you’ll be in good shape. Not many people understand the definition of a hedge. Hedging isn’t making any money, it’s insuring your profit. If you have so much wheat at such and such a price, and I tell you, “Sell it.” You sell it on the exchange, you built in the profit, and you can’t lose. There’s no such thing as the perfect hedge, but when you’re experienced and practice it, it can refine it. That’s why the big companies train people to do that for them.
Interviewer: But– but you’re looking that as– as you say as the insurance of the profit that you would earn from some other activity. It’s not– you’re not look– you’re not speculating, in the market.
Rasher: If you hedge, yes, you can always speculate, but I have always taken the position that I can’t speculate in copper. I used to speculate in silver and gold, because I didn’t care what happened to the gold and silver market. But I never wanted the copper market to go down, because to me that was a depressed business, and that’s a funny situation. I just can’t get the copper ring and sell it short. And you’ve got to be able to sell short, as quick as buying long, in the commodity business. And you gotta run like a scared rabbit when you’re wrong and change your position. The best example of that it is when I first got down the exchange, and I decided to trade silver, and at– the silver market just opened at a dollar twenty-nine, and I asked one of the experts who was helping at copper, “What should I do in silver?”
And he said, “Buy it.” So I saw him go over and he was buying, and I walked over, and as I got over to the pit, he was selling.
I said, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I told you to buy it a minute ago. This is a different minute.” And that’s basically the– and that applies to your stock exchange.
Interviewer: You have to be prepared —
Rasher: Market, you gotta run like a scared rabbit when you’re wrong.
Rasher: I um, I spoke on commodities at the University of Chicago for the National Association of Recycling Industries, and I got a big kick out of that. And my son was going for his PhD at Michigan State University, and he invited me down to speak to the students, and I spoke for about an hour and a half, and then they asked me questions and I really enjoyed that. I said to myself, “That’s what I would like to, be a professor.”
Rasher: My son now is a PhD at the University of Tulsa.
Interviewer: Teaching and what else?
Rasher: Yes, he’s a Chairman of his department at the University of Tulsa. That’s one of them. But four of my kids went to Michigan State because I went to the Ices [???] Seminar there in 1957 and they brainwashed me at Michigan State. So that’s why my kids went there. And by– by the way, they’re playing North Carolina in the Sweet 16 right now,I hope they win.
Interviewer: Yes. What advice would you have for someone just coming into the business today? Coming in as a– lets say as family. Young guy coming out of college, coming into a family scrap business. What would– what would Charlie tell them?
Rasher: Well, as you well know, from the time I saw them swinging a sledgehammer with the cast iron, to now, there’s a tremendous difference. I mean, we had typewriters with ten carbons, now we fax everything, and now, the secretaries have machines where they– I don’t know what they do because I– but my kids know. It seems like unless you have a Masters in business administration, and it’s very, very complex. The interesting part of it was if we did, when I first started, two hundred thousand dollars worth of business in a year, we had a tremendous profit. I think you have to do about two– a hundred million dollars a year now to make a living. It’s an altogether different business.
Interviewer: Would– would– would a young man coming into the business be well-advised to learn trading commodities before he learned the scrap business, or–
Rasher: It sure wouldn’t hurt. I don’t think anybody can go into business like we went into business. Buy a piece of land our in the woods for ten cents a square foot, and get a few machines. Today it take a tremendous investment, and now that’s a lot of mergers, and, it’s a different situation. For anybody want to go into the business, yes they would learn the futures business, we have people on our Copper Advisory Committee and the ComEx and the Aluminum Advisory Committee, like Com Vice Chairman now, and um, a lot of them are with your members. One is with [???39:22 ] it’s on our Copper Advisory Committee. And they go to the meetings and they just can’t learn enough. It’s so complex. Just today, he asked me downstairs, how to register a copper, uh, to be delivered on the exchange.
Interviewer: Can– Can you learn trading in college or do you have to actually do it to learn?
Rasher: Oh no, you can’t learn trading in college. We have people that we get jobs for down in the exchange, and they come into the floor and they go to a– a firm, a floor brokerage firm, or a big offer like Merrill Lynch, and they’ll be cadets, and they’ll be clerks.
Interviewer: They learned it on the job.
Rasher: And they’ll– might take two or three or four years, or they might never learn. Some people just can’t get to it.
Interviewer: Is– is the trading of metals that different from say, trading in grain, or–
Interviewer: –once you learn the mechanics?
Rasher: No. Commodities is different than stocks and bonds. If you buy a commodity, you have a certain month where it expires, and you either take delivery or sell it, and you’re in on five percent margin and you have to work. If you buy General Motors, you could keep them forever almost. Uh, when you buy copper, you don’t have a trade bar, on the futures. You don’t have the present or the organization, like, you’re not buying Phelps Dodge or Anaconda. So there’s a difference, but the best training for buying stocks, I think, is training commodities–
Rasher: –because the idea is that you buy when you think it’s going to go up, and you sell when you think it’s going down. And you don’t get biased information. There’s too much that you hear that you shouldn’t hear. For instance, they’re going to blow up the bridge in Zambia. Uh, you, uh, you just have to be unbiased. Very difficult. The best story I have, um, scrap iron– futures– futures contract, [door shuts] when I was involved with the National Defense, and they– they had had me over at the Environmental Law Institute, and they wanted to know about scrap iron, and they had scrap iron all over and they wanted to know how they could clean up everything, and we said, “Well, we should hedge it.” So they had me work with somebody from Merrill Lynch and somebody else, and we worked and worked and worked, and when I finally– we finally came up with– we can’t find a scrap buying contract which can be deliverable, and you can’t use a futures contract that can’t be deliverable. And you can’t use a scrap iron contract as a basis a basis, you can’t use iron and then sell scrap iron on a basis like you can copper and aluminum. So somebody from the American Metal Market called me one day and they said, “Why didn’t a scrap iron futures contract succeed?”
And I said, “Well, why’re you asking me?”
Well, they said, “Washington said to call you.”
So I said, “Well, we couldn’t get a deliverable contract.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Well, you know, it could be rejected scrap.”
“Well what do you mean?”
I said, “Well, it’s scrap iron. If you get copper in it, it could be rejected.”
“I don’t understand!”
I kept this up, I said, “Did you see Goldfinger? ’cause we saw Goldfinger.” ‘Cause they– they had front– they made it while we had the Institute of Scrap Iron. I said, “Remember, they put a gangster in a Cadillac? A dead gangster in, and made a press and deliver?” I says, “That’s rejected. That’s contaminating.”
He says, “Oh.”
I went out to, I think it was the Century Plaza, and I was, at the time, because of the supply cooperative, I was on the [?? 45:21 ] and all, and I was standing there with the President, and he came up to me and I can’t remember if it was Abrahams or one of those– I can’t remember, but he said, “That wasn’t a smart thing to say.”
And I said, “What did I say?”
And he walked away, and was mad. So when I got on the phone with my brother he said, “Boy, you hit the headlines in American Metal Market,” he says, “Rasher said they couldn’t have a scrap market contract because they could find dead mobster in the scrap.”
I called the guy up the next day, I was– uh, when I got back, and I was fighting bad, and I said, “Did you go to school?”
“I went to college! I got my Masters.”
Well, I said, “Well, that’s a– that was a dumb–“
And he says, “That’s what you said,” like a broken record. So I learned not to say that anymore. But that was an interesting situation.
Interviewer: I can imagine.
Rasher: Uh, but there have been a lot of problems with futures contracts, but basically we’re trying to police our industry, and we’re doing a good job. And the price of the seats have just gone crazy. I remember, Chicago Merc started a thousand dollars, it’s like eight hundred thousand today. Our seats split two for one, each one is worth a hundred thousand. And we did get over two hundred thousand from the Merc, so, these are just what happen. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere but up, so, I– there are plenty of people that want to get in the industry and I suggest they get in it, but they gotta work hard.
Interviewer: If you could do it all over again, would you do the same thing?
Rasher: Well I noticed that if I did it all over again and– it says, ‘What would you do?”
Well I– I don’t know! I– I majored in advertising, and of course, when I majored in advertising, a nice boy from– from Dunbar, you couldn’t get a job because there was so much prejudice. I um, I don’t know what I would do. Of course, I never would’ve gone into the business if my father wasn’t in it.
Rasher: Even though a lot of my relatives were in it.
Interviewer: I gathered that.
Rasher: I don’t know. I- I think you just have to go into it and then you get to like it. And of course the Trade Association did a lot to make us like it. See here was an industry that didn’t have the glamor of a department store for advertising, or– so, it was the Trade Associations, and the conventions, and the meetings kept it on a high level.