Friday, November 4, 2011

"COMMODITY TRADERS: The trillion dollar club"

A major piece from Reuters:
For the small club of companies who trade the food, fuels and metals that keep the world running, the last decade has been sensational. Driven by the rise of Brazil, China, India and other fast-growing economies, the global commodities boom has turbocharged profits at the world's biggest trading houses.

They form an exclusive group, whose loosely regulated members are often based in such tax havens as Switzerland. Together, they are worth over a trillion dollars in annual revenue and control more than half the world's freely traded commodities. The top five piled up $629 billion in revenues last year, just below the global top five financial companies and more than the combined sales of leading players in tech or telecoms. Many amass speculative positions worth billions in raw goods, or hoard commodities in warehouses and super-tankers during periods of tight supply.
U.S. and European regulators are cracking down on big banks and hedge funds that speculate in raw goods, but trading firms remain largely untouched. Many are unlisted or family run, and because they trade physical goods are largely impervious to financial regulators. Outside the commodities business, many of these quiet giants who broker the world's basic goods are little known.
Switzerland-based Glencore, whose initial public offering (IPO) in May put trading houses in the spotlight, pays some traders yearly bonuses in the tens of millions. On paper, the partial float made boss Ivan Glasenberg $10 billion richer overnight.
How big are the biggest trading houses? Put it this way: two of them, Vitol and Trafigura, sold a combined 8.1 million barrels a day of oil last year. That's equal to the combined oil exports of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Or this: Glencore in 2010 controlled 55 percent of the world's traded zinc market, and 36 percent of that for copper.

Or this: publicity-shy Vitol's sales of $195 billion in 2010 were twice those at Apple Inc. As well as the 200 tankers it has at sea, Vitol owns storage tanks on five continents.

U.S. regulations are now pending to limit banks' proprietary trading -- speculating with their own cash. The new rules don't apply to trading firms. "Trading houses have huge volumes of proprietary trading. In some cases it makes up 60-80 percent of what they do," said Carl Holland, a former price risk manager at oil major Chevron Texaco, who now runs energy consultancy Trading Solutions LLC in Connecticut. "They have the most talent, the deepest pockets, and the best risk management."

In addition to proprietary trading curbs, the U.S. regulator voted on October 19 to impose position limits in oil and metals markets. That gives banks who trade futures cause for concern, but since physical players usually receive exemptions to limits -- because they are categorized as bona fide hedgers -- trading firms should go unscathed.
The trading houses' talent and deep pockets translate into incredible power. "Most commodity buyers in the world are price takers. The top trading firms are price makers," said Chris Hinde, editor of London-based Mining Journal. "It puts them in a tremendous position."

The sort of position that has allowed Vitol to do a brisk oil business with the U.S. government, the besieged Syrian regime, and Libya's newly empowered rebels simultaneously over the past few months. In April the company dodged NATO bombs and a naval blockade and sent an oil tanker into the battered Mediterranean port of Tobruk to extract the first cargo of premium crude sold by rebels at the helm of a breakaway Libyan oil company defying Muammar Gaddafi.

Vitol also discreetly supplied Libya's rebels with $1 billion in fuel, Reuters has learned -- supplies they desperately needed to advance on Tripoli. Vitol's early running gave the firm an edge with the country's new political stewards. As it turns the pumps back on, Libyan oil firm Agoco has allocated Vitol half of its crude production to repay debts.

While its savvy traders were doing deals in eastern Libya, Vitol, along with rival Trafigura, kept refined product supplies flowing to the besieged government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria as his troops attacked civilians. Trading houses were able to do this because international sanctions on Syria do not ban the sale of fuel into the country, but they did not have to fight off much competition for that business.

Despite a relative lack of regulatory oversight, such reach does attract scrutiny. "There has always been some concern about the trading firms' influence," said Craig Pirrong, a finance professor and commodities specialist at the University of Houston, who points out that some firms "have been associated with allegations of market manipulation".

Public and regulatory attention usually rises with prices. A spike in world food prices in 2007 stirred an outcry against the largest grain trading firms; when oil prices surged to a record $147 a barrel in 2008, U.S. Congress probed the role of oil trading firms, but found no smoking gun. But in May the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission sued Arcadia and Parnon, both owned by a Norwegian shipping billionaire, for allegedly manipulating U.S. oil prices three years ago, amassing millions of barrels they had no intention of using. The companies dispute the charges.

And it's not just the Europeans. Executives of Illinois-based ADM, formerly Archer Daniels Midland, were jailed for an early 1990s international price-fixing conspiracy for animal feed additive lysine. After Minnesota-based Cargill built a huge soybean terminal on the banks of the Amazon River in 2003, it was targeted by Greenpeace and subjected to Brazilian government injunctions for allegedly encouraging more farming in fragile rainforest. Cargill has since placed a moratorium on buying soybeans from newly deforested land.

For many commodities traders, the most profitable ploy has been the squeeze, which involves driving prices up or down by accumulating a dominant position. In the early 2000s, the Brent crude oil stream -- used as a global price benchmark -- fell to 400,000 barrels per day from more than 1 million in the late 1980s. A few traders seized the chance to buy what amounted to almost all the available supply. Price premiums for immediate supply spiked, sapping margins for refiners worldwide. U.S. refiner Tosco sued Arcadia and Glencore for market manipulation; the case was settled out of court....MUCH MORE