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Reuters: War and Debt: Commodities Trading Houses Cash In

Authors: Emma Farge, and Jessica Donati
July 25, 2012

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Commodities traders are looking to countries beset with internal unrest to make high-risk bets for high rewards.

The Vitol oil trader dressed in heels picking her way through the armed rebels and pick-up trucks of post-war Tripoli had eyes only for the lucrative oil contracts up for grabs from Libya's new revolutionary government.

Her landmark deal for Vitol to export Libyan crude heralded the return of commodity houses to their swashbuckling roots, trading oil and grain with countries troubled by war and debt.

After years of backroom work focused on the dry business of building out storage, shipping and logistics operations, a small club of trading houses has jumped at the chance to land some old-fashioned big-profit deals.

They have had plenty of choice over the past year: war or unrest in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, sanctions on Iran, Greece on the brink of default.

"Trading houses are not shying away from places with high risk profiles if these profiles also lead to higher profit margins. It's about risk versus reward," said Ton Schurink at Geneva-based Commodity Finance Trading Advisory Services.

Vitol, Glencore, Gunvor and Trafigura in oil and Cargill, Louis Dreyfus and Bunge in grains have demonstrated that, for some at least, the security, credit and reputational risks are worth taking if the rewards are big enough.

Traders can operate in risky places because their business model is fundamentally different from the likes of BP or ExxonMobil.

Oil majors tend to be more wary of upsetting their home governments or shareholders and are bound to stricter rules when it comes to daily operations.

And because trading companies are mostly private, there is nobody to second-guess their internal decisions and more room for a star trader to take a bold initiative.

"Can you imagine someone at Exxon saying I'm just going to override that rule and send my tanker into pirate waters because it's a good trade? In a trading house, you don't have to listen to the model as it's privately owned," said an industry source working for a European oil firm.

Estimates from rivals suggest a trader who dares to sell grains to sanctions-straitened Iran could pocket $2 million profit per Panamax-size cargo as opposed to $200,000 if the cargo is sold to a low-risk buyer.

Premiums of at least $1.25 million were charged per diesel fuel cargo heading to unrest-prone Egypt in June this year, just days before the presidential election.

"Everyone has the same commodity to sell so you have to take risks to distinguish yourself and then manage them," said Robert Petritsch, Chief Financial Officer of Swiss-based Quadra Commodities.

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