Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Commodities trading: Not for the faint-hearted

(First published on Platts.com) Once the darling of hedge funds, commodities are now looking like a poisoned chalice. Last year, hedge funds such as BlueGold, which specialized in crude oil; Centaurus, in natural gas; and Fortress Commodities, across all raw materials, shut down. Several commodities fund of funds also closed last year after clients fled.

Commodities trading, it seems – and in particular oil – is not for the faint of heart. The field is littered with failed ventures and prison sentences.

International sanctions on exporting countries such as Iran can make trading crude an even more dangerous game. On May 9, the US Treasury said it was penalizing Sambouk Shipping for contravening these sanctions. Sambouk is allegedly associated with Dimitris Cambis, who, along with a network of front companies, was executing ship-to-ship transfers of Iranian oil to obscure its origin.

Getting access to less-than-transparent sources of oil, metals, grains and other commodities has become more hazardous as the US Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission begins to aggressively enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Archer Daniels Midland became the first commodities trading house to suffer under it.

Because of the global importance of commodities such as oil and foodstuffs, the commodities markets have become a target for public criticism regarding manipulation, bribery and corruption.

So much so that Switzerland, the go-to location for commodities trading houses over the past ten years, is fretting that it will suffer reputational damage because of its newish role as a trading hub. Switzerland is home to the world’s biggest oil and other commodity trading houses, including oil traders Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura, Mercuria and Gunvor.

In a world where deep knowledge, hands-on experience and extensive personal contacts are necessary to do a deal, even those at the top of their game can get into hot water or lose money.

So it is not surprising when Wall Street and City of London hedge funds miss the boat. Trading paper contracts, such as energy futures and derivatives, can be difficult when you don’t have an insider’s view into the physical movements of oil.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that some of the mega-importers of oil have not succeeded in entering the oil trading game. After all, purchasing vast quantities of crude oil and products should theoretically teach importers some of the tricks of the trade.

But many new entrants apparently fail to grasp the basics of the oil trading culture. One recent example is PetroChina. It hired a small staff of traders and operations people in Houston in 2008, with the aim of increasing the Chinese company’s US trading volumes and growing the Houston office.

Last week, a team of six of its Houston oil traders (and reportedly some support staff) left the Chinese oil company en masse, allegedly because promised bonuses were not paid.

The oil trading game is difficult, dangerous and often loss-making. But there is one caveat that remains true: If a company wants its staff to take the risks involved, it should be prepared to make it worth their while.

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