Oil glut brings cheer to some traders

As the oil price war drags on, some traders are making a killing from the opportunities created by the over-supplied market.

Big gains are being made by traders helping Opec deal with the glut.

One trader told The Straits Times: "In a way, they are subsidising physical traders. Opec does not want to keep the oil underground so they pay someone else to store it above ground."

The subsidy comes in the form of a steeper "contango" - where barrels are priced higher the later their delivery dates.

This makes it lucrative for traders to buy barrels now to store and sell later. Every day, 1.5 million barrels of oil go into storage, agencies estimate.

So, while rigbuilders drown in the woes of US$30 benchmark Brent crude, one firm that is not flinching is Trafigura, a commodity trader that last month announced a 50 per cent jump in gross profits from oil and petroleum products to US$1.68 billion (S$2.4 billion) for last year.

"Falling prices, heightened volatility and the emergence of contango price structures created significant opportunities in crude and product markets," wrote Trafigura, which has a desk in Singapore.

Trading volumes remain high, as oil refineries in the region operate at or near capacity to reap the higher refining margins from cheaper crude.

But traders are also wary that there will be less money to be made from contango trades this year.

"Markets always change," said one veteran oil trader. "A contango can always flip to backwardation. The market was very steep in contango about three to four weeks ago, but is now narrowing."

This means traders have to think harder before they pounce.

For one thing, they have storage costs to weigh. Land storage costs about 60 US cents a barrel, but these are mostly full. Traders can also hire floating storage like Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) that can store nearly two million barrels of crude, but at a higher price.

Mr Suresh Sivanandam, a refining and chemical analyst at Wood Mackenzie, estimates that, at current shipping rates, traders would break even at a rate of US$1 per barrel per month of crude price increase.

"Say they hire a VLCC now and store crude for six months. They will break even if the crude price moves from US$30 to US$36 a barrel in six months' time," he said last Friday, before benchmark crude for March delivery settled above US$32 a barrel.

"If you look at the Brent futures curve, the current contango is only US$3 per barrel, that is, the August contract is now trading at US$33 per barrel - the contango is not steep enough to attract storage in VLCCs."

Most analysts expect the oil market to get more rational later this year, at which point the contango will disappear.

Even so, traders said they can profit, whether prices rise or fall, and trading desks will continue to ring in revenues by financing deals or providing hedging services.

Singapore-based Cyril Youinou, head of energy trading at Standard Chartered Bank, believes now is a good time for banks to be committed to commodities.

"In the 1990s, the oil price stayed low for many years before it triggered the 2000s' bullish 'super-cycle'. The lower the oil price goes now, and the longer it stays low, the higher it will eventually go back up," he said. "It is when prices are low that banks should keep their commodities desks open."


This article was first published on January 25, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.