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The pandemic had Floyd thinking about wanting to be financially independent and not having all her money tied up in one sector of the economy. Bloomberg Markets -- It was a bleak moment for the oil industry. Petrostates were on the brink of bankruptcy. Texas roughnecks and Kuwaiti princes alike had watched helplessly for months as the commodity that was their lifeblood tumbled to prices that had until recently seemed unthinkable.
It was January Bob Dudley had been at the helm of BP Plc for six years. He ought to have had as much reason to panic as anyone in the rest of his industry. The unflashy American had been predicting lower prices for months. He was being proved right, though that was hardly a reason to celebrate. Unlike most of his peers, Dudley was no passive observer.
At the heart of BP, far removed from the sprawling network of oil fields, refineries, and service stations that the company is known for, sits a vast trading unit, combining the logistical prowess of an air traffic control center with the master-of-the-universe swagger of a macro hedge fund.
Oil prices had been under pressure ever since Saudi Arabia launched a price war against U. It was a nadir that would be reached again only in March , when the Saudis launched another price war, this time targeting Russia, just as the coronavirus pandemic sapped global demand. Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, the BP chief executive officer made his way through the snowy streets.
After one meeting, he was asked—as usual—for his oil forecast by a gaggle of journalists. And, in complete secrecy, the company was putting money behind its conviction. Shortly before flying to Davos, Dudley had authorized a daring trade: BP would place a large bet on a rebound in oil prices. Although its stock is in the FTSE index and owned by almost every British pension fund, this wager, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has remained a closely guarded secret until now.
BP was already heavily exposed to the price of oil. What the traders wanted to do was double down, to increase the exposure by buying futures contracts much as a hedge fund would. And Dudley agreed. Quietly, BP bought Brent crude futures traded in London.
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The optimistic coda Dudley attached to his catchphrase in Davos proved prescient. Bloomberg Markets pieced together the story of these lucrative but secretive operations through interviews with more than two dozen current and former traders and executives, some of which were conducted for The World for Sale, our new book on the history of commodity trading. The oil majors trade in physical energy markets, buying tankers of crude, gasoline, and diesel. And they do the same in natural gas and power markets via pipelines and electricity grids. But they do more than that: They also speculate in financial markets, buying and selling futures, options, and other financial derivatives in energy markets and beyond—from corn to metals—and closing deals with hedge funds, private equity firms, and investment banks.
As little known as their trading is to the outside world, BP, Shell, and Total see it as the heart of their business. In years of low prices, like or , trading profits can far exceed those of the production business. One reason profits are so high is because the three companies can reduce their trading tax bill by routing their business through low-tax jurisdictions—a strategy not available to their oil pumping and refining businesses, which are rooted in physical infrastructure in particular countries.
Shell, for example, concentrates all its trading of West African and Latin American crude via a subsidiary in the Bahamas. Even better for the trio, trading profits tend to soar when markets are oversupplied, as was the case in and again in , helping to cushion the blow of low prices on the traditional business of pumping and refining oil.
Trading also gives them an edge over their U. For most shareholders, however, the trading business is a black box. Together the three companies trade almost 30 million barrels a day of oil and other petroleum products, equal to the daily production of the entire OPEC cartel. Shell alone trades about 12 million barrels a day. The paper volumes are much larger.
Total, for example, trades 6. With trading comes risk.
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There are very few risk-free trades. BP, Shell, and Total declined to comment for this article. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, oil trading simply ceased to exist as the biggest producers squeezed others out of the picture. A few large companies came to dominate the industry, underpinned by their agreements to divvy up the oil resources of the Middle East.
BP was emblematic of the era. Already early traders such as Marc Rich, who founded the company that is today Glencore, were finding ways to trade oil outside the control of the Seven Sisters on the nascent spot market. The big oil companies regarded trading as beneath them and looked down on the upstarts, but they would soon be forced to think differently. The Iranian revolution of at a stroke dispossessed BP of much of its oil production. The company was forced to turn to the spot market that it had long disdained to buy the oil its refineries needed.
Soon BP was doing much more than just buying oil for its own refineries. Andy Hall, then a young graduate working in its scheduling department in New York, would go on to be one of the most successful oil traders in history after leaving BP. He recalls that he started buying any oil that looked cheap, whether BP needed it or not, figuring to resell it at a profit. The oil price slump of the late s set the stage for what the three large trading businesses would become as a wave of consolidation swept through the oil industry.
The same happened when Chevron took over Texaco. The Americans were pretty much out of the trading business. Meanwhile, BP bought Amoco, which had a large trading unit, expanding its reach. Shell, too, reorganized and centralized its trading unit.
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By the time the wave of consolidation was over in , the European trio emerged as the kings of oil trading. Their timing was exquisite: Commodity trading was about to enjoy an enormous boom as skyrocketing Chinese demand spurred a decade-long supercycle in prices. Rows of desks sprouting vast arrays of flashing multicolored screens stretch out almost as far as the eye can see.
In Chicago its traders occupy the historic floor of the former Chicago Mercantile Exchange building. All in all, BP, Shell, and Total employ about 8, people in their trading divisions, a small fraction of their overall workforce of , The traders have more in common with the investment bankers across the road than they do with their colleagues sweating on oil rigs in Nigeria or mapping fields off the coast of Brazil.
You see that moving up, hopefully, on a daily basis, and it just makes you want to do more.