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Vitol chief executive Ian Taylor said profitable trading opportunities created by the oil crash have been sharply diminished in 2015, with crude prices now appearing to have bottomed.
Mr Taylor — who has shaped Vitol into the world’s largest independent oil trader during his 20 years leading the company — said the slower-than-expected return of Iran’s oil exports and growing demand meant the price crash was probably over.
“Yes we have seen a bottom,” said Mr Taylor, speaking ahead of his appearance at the FT Commodities Global Summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Tuesday. “Especially if the barrels from Iran have been delayed until later this year.”
This sentiment was echoed by rival Gunvor Group’s chief executive Torbjörn Törnqvist.
Traders lock in a profit through the simultaneous sale of futures contracts at higher prices for later delivery, with the market in a structure known as contango. But the price difference between contracts in the spot market and for later delivery has recently narrowed, making it more difficult to store barrels profitably, especially on tankers at sea.
“The major moves we saw at the start of the year have been mitigated,” Mr Taylor said, describing the trading climate as “ a bit flat”.
“We’d all love a super-contango”, but comparisons to the profitability seen in 2008-09 after the financial crisis when prices dropped are “way overblown”.
In the 12 months to December, Vitol reported a net profit after tax of $1.35bn, the most for the privately owned company since 2011. A significant chunk of those profits were made in the fourth quarter when crude oil prices sank and volatility increased.
Mr Taylor’s remarks contrast with upbeat comments from rival Trafigura this week, whose chief executive said on Monday the recent oil price moves have “been an opportunity for growth”, with strong returns from oil trading.
Oil prices fell from more than $110 a barrel in June to near $45 a barrel in January. They have since recovered to around $65 a barrel.
Mr Taylor said he expected oil consumption to grow 1m barrels a day this year as a result of lower prices and a growing global economy.
If a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers was reached in June, Mr Taylor said, it would mean increased volumes going into the market in the last quarter of this year at the earliest, with the “beginning of next year” more likely.
Mr Taylor said Vitol was continuing to talk with people in Iran, “but there is nothing we can do right now” until the lifting of international sanctions.
Although the lower oil price environment has spurred chatter about opportunistic mergers and acquisitions, Mr Taylor said the company was not seeing many bargains.
“There is so much money in the hands of people willing to invest in the energy space” such as private equity groups. “We’re not seeing any golden nuggets,” he added.