A conversation with J-F Lambert

Good morning J-F. Could you briefly describe who you are and what you do?

I am a former banker with a banker’s DNA. I spent most of my career in international banking and trade finance, with stints in Greece and Asia. I was originally with Crédit Commercial de France -CCF, and then with HSBC, when they took over CCF. I moved to London where I built the structured trade finance activities, and then the global commodity finance activities for the group.

I’m now a consultant on trade and commodity finance and strategy for banks, companies and funds. I also teach commodity market dynamics at Sciences Po in Paris, and regularly lecture at the London Business School.

How are the different trade houses adapting to the changes in their business environment?

Although everybody is investing in logistics, Glencore is differentiating itself through a strategy of size. They believe that through size they can reduce costs, and perhaps even become a price-setter rather than a price-taker.

When you talk to ADM or Cargill, they tell you that they don’t trade commodities, but that they are an integrated supply chain from farm to fork. Their profits are not coming from trading; their profits are coming from sophisticated supply chain management. They also endeavor to generate commercial margins by producing and selling adding-value products downstream.

Cargill has been doing this for many years now, shifting focus to animal and fish proteins. This certainly makes sense when population is increasing and the middle-class is growing. The world needs more protein, and Cargill’s investment into the verticality of the protein supply chain is paying off handsomely.

ADM is a different animal. Let’s not forget that the original “A” amongst the ABCDs was André, not Archer Daniels Midland. ADM is by and large an agri-industrial company, not a trading house. It has developed into trading, but the bulk of their money is spent and earned on the industrial part of the business.

Dreyfus will also tell you that they are no longer a trading house, and that they are now supply chain managers. However, Dreyfus is probably one of the last true large trading houses left in the market. That is quite a challenge in a market where the odds of making money through trading get slimmer.

Bunge is somewhere in between Cargill and Dreyfus. There is more trading at Bunge than there is at Cargill, but Bunge is keen to complement their upstream capabilities with downstream access, in search for commercial margins. Their aim is to lower their reliance on trading and become more of an agri-industrial company.

What about COFCO, or rather their trading company COFCO International Ltd? You once said that their role was to feed the dragon.

COFCO International is a game changer in the world of agricultural commodity trading.

I believe their true mission is to optimize sourcing at origin and ensure a smooth and efficient supply for the Chinese market. Their grip on China as a destination is already strong and will only get stronger. This is a major issue for the ABCDs, as price discovery in China will get more difficult to read.

I believe the rivalry between the U.S and China is a new normal. If that view is correct, COFCO International’s role becomes even more important. It has to restructure the sourcing and origination of China’s food imports in order to lower the country’s dependency on the U.S. To fulfill it efficiently, I would expect further acquisitions/alliances down the road.

Do you believe that traceability is an integral part of a trade house model?

Traceability is not a luxury, it is “a must have.” Part of the process of industrialization is to efficiently support that traceability requirement. For now, consumers in developed countries are the most demanding, but with emerging urban middle classes around the world, requirements for traceability will only rise and spread.

There seems to be a growing trend for banks to link finance to sustainability and human rights objectives.

I see a future—not too far away—where at least the large banks will eventually only finance sustainable production. This is the trend. If you look at the coal business, not a single international bank will finance a new project in coal fired power generation. I think that banks will have to exit non-sustainable agribusinesses. Not doing it would merely be unacceptable to the society at large, and the reputational risk incurred would be too high.

 Will any of the big trading companies exit their bulk commodity trading operations to concentrate on higher value parts of the supply chain?

Trading companies will not “quit” trading. It is their core expertise and their culture. However, trading as a stand-alone is no longer generating profits in line with the risks undertaken. All large trading companies therefore are endeavoring to complement – or rather, enhance – their trading capabilities by capturing what they have identified as the higher value parts of the supply chains. This is easier said than done.

First, you need to identify the right supply chain and the right portion of it: upstream or downstream. Second, investing in supply chains is costly and companies need the financial strength to do so.

Not every player can afford the risks and costs involved. This leaves them with two alleys: partnerships and mergers amongst equals.

Do you think that trade houses should be publicly quoted?

A listed company has to have a growth story to tell, year after year to investors. This does not fit well with the cyclical nature of the commodity business. But I will go one step further. As I already said, commodity traders are currently struggling to make money, and I think that they will continue to struggle in the years to come. So I doubt we will see any commodity traders listing in the next 10 or 15 years.

Would you recommend a young person now to join one of the big grain trading companies?

There is no better school for someone to learn about markets and discover how the world works. Commodities are about history, demography, geography, economy, finance and geopolitics! It is a fantastic training for young people, even if they intend to move on to other activities.

Thank you J-F for your time.

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is a brief extract of a conversation that will be included in my upcoming book on the grain trade, to be published before the end of 2019.

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