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National Companies Step In as Banks Exit Commodities Markets

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When regulators put tougher restrictions on banks regarding commodity trades after the financial crisis, they set the stage for changes in the commodities markets that are playing out on the world stage.

As banks wind down or sell off their trading units, national companies from across the globe are stepping into the breach, and conventional commodities traders are reinventing themselves to take advantage of the opportunities they see.

Deutsche Bank, which held the fifth largest slot in the commodities business, has become the first major bank to depart the sector, although it was not the first to announce its intention to do so. JPMorgan Chase & Co. put up its commodities trading arm for sale in the summer and Morgan Stanley has been seeking a buyer for its energy trading business for two years.

But in December Deutsche Bank made it official, announcing 200 job cuts and clustering some parts of its commodities business for sale as the Special Commodities Group. The bank has said that it will continue to trade in precious metals and will also retain a few financial derivatives traders, but that it will exit the agriculture, base metals, coal and iron ore, and energy sectors.

Banks have been hit with the double whammy of lower margins and higher capital requirements, in addition to coming under regulatory scrutiny for their role in natural resources markets—not to mention a few contretemps regarding energy trading and allegations of market manipulation—, which had resulted in Deutsche Bank already having shuttered its carbon, electricity and natural gas trading operations in Europe and in North America. Of the top five, only Goldman Sachs has stuck to its guns, resisting the move to divest that has seized the other banks.

As the banks exit commodities markets, state companies from places like the Gulf States, China and Russia are stepping in and conventional commodities traders are broadening the services they offer to better seize market share. Russia’s Rosneft, which bought Morgan Stanley’s oil trading unit in December, is only one of the firms seeking entree into a field where they see plenty of opportunity despite the pitfalls. Saudi Aramco has begun doing its own trading and focuses on refined products. Gazprom, Petrobras and Sinopec are also wading into the fray, adding merchant and trading capabilities to their producer roles, with Gazprom already conducting sizeable gas trading operations in both London and Singapore. China’s state-run PetroChina and Unipec have already built up impressive global trading capabilities, and consultant Oliver Wyman has said in a commodities market report that it expects many national oil companies to follow the example of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan and set up their own in-house trading divisions.

Not all banks are departing the commodities markets, of course. JPMorgan has been in talks with Brazilian investment bank Grupo BTG Pactual for sale of its own trading business, as the Brazilian bank prepares to launch trading operations in Singapore this year. And London-based Standard Chartered said in December that it plans to boost its commodities team staff by 20 and double commodities revenues over the  next four years.

Changes aren’t only happening to banks and state firms. Existing trading firms are getting more creative in how they approach the markets and how they structure their business. For instance, trading house Vitol has teamed up with private equity group Carlyle to buy European refineries, which it sees as providing broader opportunities. Several trading firms are looking for expansion openings in Africa, despite the risks, hoping to tap into the explosive growth the continent is showing in some areas. Instead of looking to export from Africa, many of these firms are now looking at ways to import to various African nations, which could provide them additional trade volume as well as outlets for assets for which a burgeoning middle class is creating demand.

In an Oliver Wyman study, “The Dawn of a New Order in Commodity Trading—Act II: Why integrated commodity producers must become more active in asset optimization and trading to survive,” co-authors Ernst Frankl, Roland Rechtsteiner and Graham Sharp said, “In the near future, we predict commodity producers will need to embrace the same sophisticated trading and optimization practices developed by independent commodity traders in order to remain competitive. This means selling their commodities through long-term contracts, but also more proactively trading the commodities they produce and selling them through a wider variety of channels.”

Such moves would have serious economic benefits for the firms. “By perfecting techniques to maximize profits from commodity production assets through trading, commodity traders have been able to build up a $38 billion commodity trading market. We estimate that this market could grow to become $54 billion as national oil companies and integrated commodity producers become more active in trading, especially as they forge new markets in commodities that are less actively traded, such as minerals, metals, and LNG,” the study states.


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