Physical Commodity Trading – Guest Post

***This post is courtesy of frequent commenter Houston Natural Gas Analyst***

 

Physical Commodity Trading 101

The physical commodities trading space is a particularly niche segment of the overall Wall Street variety of career paths. It is extremely different from the paper trading that banks largely stick to in that you actually take delivery of the product you are trading, thus logistics come into play and you own large parts of the value chain to increase trade margins.

My area of expertise is in the North American gas trading space and the international LNG markets. However, given the fact that these transactions aren’t as exciting as those that take place in speculative crude oil trading, the example I will provide below will follow the sale of oil to a utility in Taiwan by a commodity trading house.

As you will see, there are many moving parts to a deal, this is why commodity trading floors are large and have multiple units or ‘desks’ all working on the same trades as it takes many people specializing in many different fields in order to complete a single physical transaction. Physical transactions are not heavily ‘screen based’ and most deals are completed via instant messaging and over the phone. These types of trades are impossible to complete as a one man show.

Before we jump in I’ll attempt to pre-emptively answer what I believe will be the most common question…

Compensation: Small salary. The upside comes from annual bonuses, which is formulated from my team’s y/e P&L, which is paid part cash (and mostly not deferred unlike at the banks) and part stock. Last year (which was one of the most lucrative years yet… despite the drop in commodity prices) the typical gas trader at my firm made something to the tune of $1.1MM all in. A lot of times this can be substantially lower if there isn’t as many opportunities to exploit arbitrage windows and I’ll go ahead and peg the typical gas trader compensation at ~300k – 600k all in YoY on a long term basis.

Last year the volatility in commodity markets presented many opportunities to exploit time arbitrage windows and thus the compensation figures for traders were substantial.

And with that out of the way, let’s get into it:

The time separating the purchase of oil from its sale increases the price risk. The counterparty default risk and the specificity of each transaction introduce additional challenges to oil and freight hedging and make trade risk management complex.

To discuss the elements of oil and freight hedging, let’s have a look at the hedging components in the timeline of a typical crude oil transaction:

Day 1: TRADE AGREEMENT

– An oil trader at a commodity merchant has agreed to buy 1MM barrels of Saharan blend crude oil FOB (free on board) from an international oil company loading in 41 to 45 days at Skikda, Alegeria at a USD -1 per barrel negative differential from the Brent benchmark. (The Brent crude oil benchmark is used for pricing physical oil in the Atlantic Basin.)

– Simultaneously the trader has agreed to sell the oil CIF (cos, insurance and freight) to a refinery in Taiwan for delivery in 101 to 105 days at a +4 positive differential from the Dubai benchmark. (The Dubai crude oil benchmark is used for pricing crude oil exports to East Asia.)

– Immediately after the trader got his oil trade agreement confirmation the freight paper trading desk covers the risk exposure that the freight represents with a composite of long freight forward agreements (FFA)

– Typically, a commodity trading and shipping advisory tailors the composite to the specific needs of the transaction…. The correlation, volatility and the covariance of the instruments chosen are quantified to create a composite achieving decent liquidity while minimizing the basis risk

– The shipping desk at the merchant is now vetting candidates and negotiates a suitable vessel opened for the loading area with a laycan i.e. the period in which the vessel has to present herself at the port in question, in the next 41 to 45 days

– Immediately after the trader got the agreement, the oil paper trading desk buys 1000 Brent/Dubai swaps to cover the 1MM barrels under the trade agreement. They could also use a combination of Brent futures and forward month Dubai swaps to cover the Brent and East of Suez prices. But the Brent/Dubai swap enhances hedging due to how liquid it is

– Opening this position is to lock in differential values. A lot of math is involved here but at the end of the day what happens is that the hedge removes any market risk from the trade and the position is solely exposed to the spread between the price where the trade originated and where it will ultimately be discharged. (North Africa/Far East arbitrage)

Days 2 – 40: PRICING PERIOD

– Oil and the cost of freight are marked-to-market daily

– Tanker freight is volatile and needs to be marked-to-market just like the oil that they transport

– The sooner parties come to an agreement on a vessel the better. Typically the trader’s hedge desk will then close the freight swaps and chase paper confirmations for the trader

– In our example a suezmax tanker voyage is locked in at USD 3.50 per barrel with a realized hedging gain

– On day 1 the Saharan oil was traded at +1, thereafter it will be marked-to-market daily

– As a result the market sets the price of the oil during the pricing period

– The final price settlement however is determined by the average when the loading is completed

– For the purchase the Saharan is fixed in the trade agreement as the Brent average during the loading period

– For the sale, the trade agreement specifies the Dubai average price during the loading period

Days 41 – 45: LOADING

– When tanker hoses are disconnected from the ship’s manifold, the vessel has finished loading its cargo

– At this point, the merchant buys the Saharan blend crude oil at the average Brent price minus 1 (USD 100 per barrel in our example) and thereby defines its inventory cost (USD 100MM)

– When originating crude oil (day 1) the trader’s analyst requested a letter of credit (LoC) from an investment bank’s commodities desk

– Through this intermediation the company provides credit to this international clients in the form of offshore US dollars

– The oil company seller that the trader bought from draws on the LoC and the agreed amount becomes a secured loan of the trading company

– Thanks to the LoC the risk of the trader defaulting on the oil purchase is effectively transferred to the issuing institution

– Because the oil sales price with the refinery has been determined at an average Dubai loading +4 (USD 103 per barrel in our example) the trader has no price risk anymore

– Once the oil is priced, the oil paper traders sell their Brent/Dubai swaps with a realized hedging gain of USD 1MM

– If the average price was determined at the average Dubai discharge +4 the trade would still be exposed to price-risk and the would need to sell a forward month Dubai Swap matching the period when the refinery is finally pricing

Days 46 – 100: TRANSPORTATION

– The contract is for 1MM barrels, typically the loading is less than 98% of the volume capacity to allow for expansion

– The exact quantity of oil is determined at the loading port

– As a result the invoice quantity of oil is the quantity states in the bill of lading

– Ideally, the physical excess/deficit between the nominated quantity and the total barrels loaded would be zero but unfortunately this is never the case

– As such, the excess/deficit relative to the LoC is marked to market

Days 101 – 105: DELIVERY

– Once the tanker discharges in Taiwan, the merchant invoices the refinery the bill of lading quantity times the Dubai average +4 (USD 103 per barrel) as agreed in the trade agreement

– Until the trading company receives the payment for the cargo, the receivable is securitized by a bank’s commodities structuring group in a “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV) sponsored by the trading companythereby providing a supplemental layer of cash flow

– This allows the company to manage credit risks via securitization i.e. transferring them to the capital markets instead of assuming the transaction’s credit risk (that the refinery doesn’t fulfill its obligations in a timely manner after the cargo delivery)

– The bank bundles this and other notes like it into a zero-coupon fixed income security and transfers the risks to the capital markets

Summary: There you have it. The day-to-day work of a Houston/London/Singapore/Geneva commodities trader. The above explanation demonstrates how the commodity risk management of a straightforward transaction can become rather complex. Oftentimes, additional transaction layers make it very tough for the company’s internal hedge desk to audit the trading risks and as a result provide for an accurate hedging of the full transaction. This happens surprisingly often and forces guys like me to get trapped at the office pretty late. It’s particularly bad when edits to the risk management of a transaction have to be correlated between London Houston and Singapore’s trading desks.

I understand all of this is extremely hard to follow if you don’t work in the space and have included an extremely simple version of a position model that has been annotated so that it’s easier to follow along.

As mentioned above, any questions? Ask away.

Next, I’ll go ahead and describe a typical day in the life of someone who works on a phys commodities desk. Every day is relatively different given the nature of the job, but given the fact that the business is a bit slower paced than traditional wall streetfinancial trading roles it’s slightly more routine:

A Day in the Life

6:30 AM – Alarm goes off, check emails that came in overnightfrom our international desks, make sure there was no trouble when London and Singapore rolled their risk models on exposure for the group.

7:00 AM – Jump in car and drive to the office (Houston public transit system is awful and doesn’t go anywhere except around the city core.)

7:30 AM – Arrive on the desk, swing by the coffee shop downstairs for a coffee and small pastry.

7:45 AM – Start firing up my terminal (Bloomberg, Outlook, Excel, ICE trading platform, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Symphony) emails begin flooding into inbox, mostly research reports. Instant message buddies at other firms, brokers, and other traders to get their thoughts on how the day is going to pan out. By now most guys are at their desks and some enter into positions. If you’re working at an oil & gas major this is the time that you’ll be reaching out to your ‘regulars’ to take some of the production that came in overnight off your hands. Typically – you must sell all of the commodity length at an oil & gas producing company before you’re allowed to take positions in the spec book. However there are a few oil & gas companies that differ in this regard and have dedicated desks which solely trade speculatively and don’t have to be bothered to sell the equity production at the beginning of the day.

8:00 AM – Check in with market intelligence services regarding any plant maintenance, pipeline damage/closures, power outages etc. Instant message my schedulers and ops guys to see if there are any problems taking place in end markets regarding logistics as well. Make sure weather is not impairing the movement of any of our energy.

8:30 – CME opens. Brokers start blasting my IM with wiresshowing bid/ask spreads, market starts to light up and I jump on the phone with brokers and sales & trading guys at the banks to sniff out any valuable information which could potentially be exploited for a profitable trade. The market is usually most active in the first 30 min of the day and the last 30 min of the day.

9:00 – Market is a bit calmer might make a few scalp trades in financial products here and there based on run of the mill technical signals. Fire up regression model my analyst built to forecast the EIA gas storage numbers which will be released in the next 30 min. Flatten any exposure going into the news release because although EIA reports aren’t particularly accurate they have the potential to cause massive movements in the market.

9:30 – EIA report drops, turns out there was an inventory build in gas with demand remaining flat. Gas futures drop 150 basis points; I analyze the movement and see the impact it has had on physical gas prices around the country. Try to find anomalies caused by the price action which can be exploited.

10:30 – Still on the phone/IMing counterparties, brokers, and buddies at other firms. Arb model lights up showing that gas at Chicago City Gates will perform stronger relative to the futures market. Buy 500,000 mmBtu July Natural Gas FOB Chicago City Gates @ $2.85 sell 50 Aug Natural Gas Futures @ $2.80. (I am no longer worried about where the price of gas goes because that risk has been offset by the position I took in the futures market, I am now strictly concerned with how gas in Chicago performs against the futures index.)

11:30 – Lunch time. Order food in via post-mates since I can’t leave the desk while I’m in this position.

1:00 – Markets are closing, volatility begins to spike. Sell 500,000 mmBtu July Natrual Gas FOB Chicago City Gates @ $2.86 buy 50 Aug Natural Gas Futures @ $2.75. Result: profit of $30,000 (5k on phys 25k on futures.) Turns out my thesis based on the arb model and some fundamentals proved accurate.

2:00 – Meander around the trading floor, shoot the shit with counter-parties and the guys on my desk, read a couple Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg articles. Enter into intense discussion about the quality of the guy’s suit that’s talking on CNBC and how hot one of the chicks are.

3:00 – Discuss the daily market action with other traders, follow up with reporters regarding market commentary etc. swing into a 15 min position report meeting to review exposure of the book and prep game plan for tomorrow.

4:00 – Write up all the trades made during the day, review contracts negotiated during the day, return calls, emails, and IMs I missed while intently watching my trade. Follow up with junior traders on their projects relating to updating/building new arbitrage models etc.

5:00 – Finished for the day. Head out for drinks.

Comments

  1. Wall Street Playboys says

    Thanks for the Guest Post. With that in mind we’ll be first to ask a question.

    Question: Currently attending clown shoes state school with a 3.0 GPA in nothing that matters. But am a “really hard worker”, free time is spent reading motivational stories about people who used to be failures just like me “turning it around” without doing any actual diligence on their stories. That said how do i break into your industry and start making lots of monies ?!!?!?!

    Note: Not willing to transfer schools, just want to sneak into the industry.

    • Sepp says

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    • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

      Ah my favorite questions — very happy you asked!

      My advice on breaking in is as follows:

      1) Watch as many motivational videos as you can on YouTube (my favorite one is the Steve Jobs convocation address) they’ll make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside and without a doubt have a material impact on your success!

      2) Make sure when you meet people from the business you ask them the most coveted questions which are:

      “What is the culture like at your firm?”

      and

      “Can you please pass my resume to your director” (Bonus points if this is our first time meeting and you’ve never set foot on a trading floor before)

      finally…

      3) When you go for informational interviews make sure you bring in your Scottrade paper trading account statements with 5,000% return on brent crude and henry hub gas futures trading… these are the most realistic and accurate predictors of performance that you can possibly have (screw internships and a good school)

      • Wall Street Playboys says

        Thank you! Don’t use scottrade becuase it is too expensive for each transaction. Who can afford those fees!

        Glad my returns on penny stocks will impress the directors and BSDs in the office!

      • says

        Natural Gas Analyst – Houston

        Since you copied 4 plain pages of my article in the Swiss derivatives Review I should be your “co-author”.
        https://jacquessimon506.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/oil-trade-and-freight-hedging-process-flows/

        As a Physical Trader, your gas trading math doesn’t add up.
        The example “A DAY IN THE LIFE” describes the action between a basis Swap seller and a basis Swap seller.

        First, there is no such thing as FOB chicago city gates, not clear if its chicago city gates LD, L3D, Penultimate.

        Secondly, Basis Swap are always quotes Bid-Offers.
        Particularly Chicago City Gates Bid-Offer is at least 3-4c. Particularly, Chicago deals would be made on (L3D-“Last 3 Days”), likely more acceptable for an end-users, which means your volatility and profit is smooth-out.

        Thirdly, with no Fixed and Variable Pipeline Transport Pricing costs are in this example which suggests it’s purely OTC swap paper trading on Cash-index, rather than cash-trading the physicals.

        Simon

  2. says

    Thanks for the Great Overview!

    For those who have never read anything like this before, it’s easily the most detailed/complete overview of the job available online (and I’ve spent hours searching all the classic online forums).

    One thing that might be useful to add is breaking in as a Physical Trader. From most of what I’ve read the classic path is to go through pipeline scheduling for a few years to understand how the value chain works and then you might get the opportunity to become a trader.

    Was this your experience? Are there other ways to break in? Maybe from IB or Trading? Perhaps you could share your path for the college/IB readers.

    Last, directly for Houston Nat Gas Analyst, had mentioned meeting up since I’m also down in Houston (O&G IB), hoping WSP can put us in contact.

    • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

      Excellent question — as mentioned before this industry is different from the traditional Wall Street path.

      Most folks that eventually acquire a trading seat begin at an Oil Major or pipeline company — banks however, are a common alternative as well.

      Oil Major route: (BP/Shell/Phillips 66/Chevron) have the best structured programs for developing future trading talent — most of these companies have structured analyst rotational programs which typically range between 1 – 2 years in length. Over the course of the programs you’ll likely be exposed to:

      — Risk management
      — Logistics (scheduling)
      — Confirmations & settlements
      — Market analytics & forecasting
      — Commodities accounting desk *yawn*

      Typically after you’ve rotated through each of these roles in 3 – 6 month increments your company will offer you a trader assessment test which is typically a 1 month long trading simulation followed by an exam. If you perform exceptionally on this you will likely receive a trading seat and a small starting amount of VaR (Value at Risk).

      If you perform poorly on this however, you’ll likely be put in a role that will develop your deficiency for another year or so after which you will be offered to take the trader assessment once again.

      Pipeline route: Very similar to above.

      Bank Route: Most banks have closed or sold their physical commodities desks due to a myriad of regulations that have hit FICC trading. However a few banks such at Citi and Goldman still have commodities desks. Banks have very traditional analyst programs where the first year you’ll rotate across different commodities desks such as:

      — Commodites structuring
      — Power market making
      — Gas market making
      — Oil trade finance

      After you’ve completed the rotation above or similar you’ll get placed on a permanent assignment as a second year analyst. In your third year you’ll be promoted to an associate and be allowed to begin making trades.

      The exit opportunity for the above entry level roles are commodity trading houses and merchants and hedge funds which have much much higher risk appetites and therefore much higher bonus payouts.

      Finally, with respect to alternative backgrounds — commodities is a lot less ‘pedigree’ driven than the rest of Wall Street. Therefore, if you are able to make it into one of the above entry level programs (regardless of age/duration of time spent in a different line of business) you stand a chance at receiving a trading seat at some point in time.

      I knew one guy that worked as a crude oil trading analyst at an Oil Major that had a decent future ahead of him and will likely become a trader at some point who was previously a social studies teacher at a high school LOL. Not saying this is the norm by any means — but just goes to show that there are ways to break in even when it seems that hope may be lost.

      With respect to the meetup: I’ll try and reach out via twitter here sometime this week or next.

      • Anonymous says

        Quick question, I’m the Chemical trader from below.

        Say I have some oil and gas industry experience & what I do know, would it be possible to break into oil trading?

      • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

        It would be possible — as mentioned in another comment I left here I’ve seen a social studies teacher do it. However, you’d have to be willing to take a pay cut and start out as an analyst/scheduler for at least 1 -2 years in order to learn the market and the logistics of the business before you’re offered a seat on a trading floor.

    • says

      I have many friends in Houston. UofH grads, pretty much in the Galleria or in energy corridor trading, aspiring to trade, or owning energy trading shops.

      By nature its an highly competitive environment

      P.S Houston Energy Analyst, the typical day schedule above is relax for a trader…. sometimes a day finish 9h-10h

      Now read this and note each of these words:
      If you want to get into the energy trading in Houston at Mercuria, Vitol, Freepoint, Koch, they want to see that you have instinctively have a very Solid and Broad view on the markets.

      IF not… they will not see in you the potential and you still might work in support-function but not in a trader role.

      Very solid and broad view on the markets doesn’t mean bragging.

      My advice to all is never ever brag about your knowledge, if you go into job interviews with senior people at the Vitols and Trafigura because it’s a big repellent.

      Once you are hired, avoid stupid things (party, illegal substances).
      The oil companies are still very conservative.

      Simon

  3. says

    Great, nice to hear about a day in the life. My friend owned a seat at the CBOE his stories are amazing. Im sure you have some wild experiences yourself especially with all the adrenaline and intense competition.

    • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

      Yep! It’s a stressful business to work in! Especially with the recent volatility impacting commodity markets.

      If you feed off this stress and it’s the motivation for you to wake up in the morning however, this is the business for you!

  4. dfdf says

    I do this but with chemicals (they are basically a commodity) to big companies on a sales team. It’s similar to an enterprise level sales role in terms of deal size 50k-several million contract over several years. Deals can close the same day or can take several years to close.

    Thinking about making the switch to commodities someday to Glencore or Cargill or something similar someday. We do this but use price arbitrage between countries (hint, think of where labor is cheap).

    • Anonymous says

      Right on — I’ve sat with some guys that work at Tricon which is pretty big in the chemicals trading business from the perspective of a Merchant. I’ve also met several gents from ChevronPhillips from a more corporate perspective.

      Def interesting business as well

      • Anonymous says

        I checked their website. Very similar. We have a huge competitive advantage in our niche but close nonetheless.

    • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

      I went to school in Houston and as a result have a strong friend network here — however most of my family resides in the NE and some are in Toronto so I think that if I had chosen another path in finance i.e. IB/traditional S&T I would prefer to live in NYC or Toronto.

      But with respect to working in the energy business however; Houston is the prime spot to be in with regards to career progression. Additionally, working in Houston will eventually provide expat opportunities to work abroad — particularly in London/Singapore. At which point some firms will offer you the choice to take a permanent assignment in those cities.

      Finally — while the lifestyle in Houston isn’t as fun/exciting when compared to NYC, the city has grown considerably in recent years and is projected to surpass Chicago in population size within the next few years. This population growth has contributed to a more exciting and enjoyable city to live in — the night life scene has improved considerably and the food options here are now some of the top in the nation. Recreationally speaking there is a lot to do and the mild weather year-round allows you to participate in a huge variety of activities regardless of the season.

      So to sum it up — I wouldn’t live in Houston were I pursuing a career in IB/traditional trading because the opportunities for advancement just aren’t there — however, given the fact that I work in the energy space there is no better city to be in (Houston is the energy capitol of the world). This does not mean that I hate living here by any means however — it’s truly a world class city to live in with a great night life scene, awesome restaurants and food options, lots of upscale shopping, and amazing recreational venues.

      • Mechanical Engineering Student says

        Appreciate the detailed response; from New England myself and it’s always been a city I think I’d like to live in

      • Natural Gas Analyst - Houston says

        You’ll enjoy it man — a few of my co-workers are from NYC/NE as well and most appreciate the lower cost of living but almost equal pay that they can make here. The weather is also pretty awesome.

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