The silhouettes of pumpjacks are seen above oil wells in the Bakken Formation near Dickinson, North Dakota, U.S., on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. When oil sold for $100 a barrel, many oil towns dotting the nation's shale basins grew faster than its infrastructure and services could handle. Since 2015, as oil prices floundered, Williston has added new roads, including a truck route around the city, two new fire stations, expanded the landfill, opened a new waste water treatment plant and started work on an airport relocation and expansion project. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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Crude oil has just had its best quarter for a decade, up more than a quarter. But at an FT conference this week on the shores of Lake Geneva, a lot of the talk was of the world’s biggest commodity traders looking elsewhere for profits.

For the likes of Glencore, Trafigura and Vitol, the spike in oil this year presents something of a conundrum. While the traders generally stand to do well from the volatility created by big quarterly price swings (the sell-off in crude in the fourth quarter was the largest since 2014), it can also affect their appetite for risk. And over canapés and champagne this week, few said they were prepared to bet aggressively on the rally going much further.

Traders from the big trading houses all expressed doubts crude would be boosted much further, despite Opec making large production cuts at a time when US sanctions are already crimping output from members Venezuela and Iran.

They cited concerns including the strength of US shale production growth, to the pressure US president Donald Trump is putting on Opec to scale back its cuts in case higher oil prices should endanger the growth prospects for the world economy. Most see oil capped below $75 a barrel — well below October’s highs of $86.

“I think the market is going to struggle to get back to those levels [seen in 2018],” said Alex Beard, Glencore’s head of oil trading.

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This uncertainty over the outlook is leading the largest independent commodity houses to take a pause for breath in the oil market after a half-decade of supercharged growth.

Trading margins have come under pressure from more intense competition within the industry and with no clear directional price trend, the volumes traded of crude and refined petroleum products have stalled. Increasingly, traders have adopted a mantra borrowed from the wider oil industry: “value over volume.”

Glencore’s oil business, for example, saw volumes drop 17 per cent last year, while Mercuria’s fell by almost a quarter. Vitol, the largest independent trader, increased its crude and refined products marginally above 7m barrels a day last year, but only after the purchase of a failing rival.

To counteract this slowdown in oil, the largest independent commodity houses are increasingly looking for new markets and strategies, especially given long-term question marks about demand for oil.

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Chief among these are natural gas, particularly liquefied natural gas that is frozen and transported by ship. Many see LNG transforming the gas market into a truly global commodity whose trading could one day rival oil.

While the continued expansion into LNG by traders comes at a time when a surge in supplies of the fuel has overwhelmed demand, the majority see the recent slide in prices as a temporary phenomenon. Last week Asian prices fell to a multiyear discount compared to the European benchmark, a sign of oversupply.

“The near future of LNG is quite bleak,” said Pablo Galante Escobar, Vitol’s LNG global head. “[But the long term future of LNG is bright.” Vitol chief executive Russell Hardy said the move towards cleaner fuels was “obvious” and that while LNG, biofuels, power and batteries comprise about one-fifth of the company’s business today, that share was certain to grow in the future.

Traders said in the short-term they would not rule out LNG production being shut down should prices remain too low for too long. And there are now question marks over whether a slew of final investment decisions over projects, expected some time this year, will take now place.

But the market is still predicted to double to 600m tonnes per annum by 2040, with new buyers emerging in areas such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, while other countries will want cleaner-burning gas to reduce their reliance on coal.

Further opportunities for traders will come from a structural shift in the market towards spot sales, and away from long-dated contracts between buyers and sellers.

Hiroki Sato of Jera, the world’s largest buyer of LNG, said that as the market becomes deeper and more actively traded the LNG cycle “is getting shorter and shorter,” creating more volatility. That is one reason why the company — a joint venture created in 2015 between Chubu Electric Power and Tokyo Electric Power, the giant Japanese utilities — is seeking to boost its own trading arm.

Meanwhile, Mercuria’s chief financial officer Guillaume Vermersch said the Swiss-based trading house was looking to expand its LNG team. This week Gunvor completed the purchase of a biofuels business, in another sign that traders are moving into areas complementary to their traditional oil businesses.

Torbjörn Törnqvist, Gunvor’s chief executive, said that even if the energy transition to cleaner fuels is “not going to happen overnight”, and oil would remain a key part of the company’s operations, increasingly the focus is now on developing new markets.

Additional reporting by Emiko Terazono

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