In their excellent and must-read book, The World for Sale, Javier Blas and Jack Farchy have pulled together what the FT calls ‘rollicking yarns’ from the last fifty years of commodity trading. The authors have written the book like a spy thriller. James Bond (in the form of Vitol’s Ian Taylor) braves missile attacks to provide oil to fuel the Arab Spring. The evil genius Blofeld (in the form of Marc Rich) manipulates markets, breaks sanctions and trades with the enemy.
Ian Taylor and Marc Rich have sadly passed away, which makes me wonder to what extent the book reflects the current reality of commodity trading. When the world of trading is trying to increase diversity, what impact will the book have on a young person, particularly a young woman, thinking of a career in the business? Would it be like a young person joining the CIA or MI6 searching for heroic derring-do, only to discover that modern-day spying is more about computer-based data management?
The question, therefore, is: ‘If you read The World for Sale, would you be disappointed if you joined the world of commodities?’ My answer is: ‘It won’t be what you expect, but you won’t be disappointed.’
Commodity trading has always been about data – what we used to call ‘statistics’ or ‘supply and demand analysis’ – which commodity professionals use to predict future price behaviour. The weather is probably the most critical variable in agricultural commodities, but there are many others, politics and government intervention being high on the list.
Making sense of all this data – bringing all the various elements together to form a compelling picture – is like doing a jigsaw puzzle on the deck of a yacht in a Force 8 gale. There will always be missing pieces, and you will have to make difficult decisions without full information.
You will spend a lot of time on that yacht if you join a financial institution as a ‘paper’ trader. Your work will be almost 100 per cent analysis, but you will quickly get used to being buffeted around by the gales that regularly sweep through the markets. Although I prefer physical commodity trading, you will have a challenging and rewarding career as a paper trader. You will also be adding value in terms of market liquidity and price discovery.
Physical commodity merchandising is about sustainable and efficient supply chain management. You can define it as ‘transforming commodities in space (geography), time (storage) and form (processing)’.
As you move your particular commodity along the supply chain, you will discover market inefficiencies and mispricing. These could, for example, make your corn worth more as ethanol than animal feed. You could find that it is cheaper to supply your Chinese wheat buyers from the US than Australia.
Most market inefficiencies occur when poor crops or government interference disrupt supply chains. The Trump trade wars with China meant that Brazilian soy suddenly increased in value compared to US soy. Russian export taxes on grain suddenly made other origins more competitive.
You may do all your analysis and discover that the market is not mispricing the various differentials but is mispricing the entire supply and demand for a commodity. When that happens, the flat (outright) price will move. This occurred during the super cycle of the 2000s when the world underestimated Chinese demand (for everything) while overestimating the world’s ability to supply it.
As you merchandise your physical commodity, you might, if you are lucky, earn a tiny margin at each stage of the supply chain. However, you will be more likely to make your living as a commodity trader by taking advantage of small market inefficiencies – mispricing – all along the supply chain. By doing so, you will not only make a profit; you will also make the market more efficient, ensuring that it sends the correct price signals to market participants. This is especially true for the flat price. Futures markets reflect the future: prices move in advance of a shortage or surplus, solving the problem before it happens.
As well as making your supply chain efficient, you will also have to make it economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. Your customers will demand nothing less, even if, unfortunately, they won’t pay you extra for it. Sustainability is now a ‘given’. In achieving this, you will find yourself working alongside – rather than in conflict with – NGOs, certification agencies and other not-for-profit foundations.
As I discovered when I wrote my book about coffee, you may also find that you are using your supply chain in reverse, helping NGOs to implement and effect change at the origin.
As well as managing the traceability of your supply chain, you will also have to manage the risks in it. You can hedge some of your price risks on the derivative markets, but most differentials are impossible to hedge. The skills you learn will enable you to trade those differentials successfully.
You will also have to manage counterparty risk – a client defaulting on you – and country risk – a government changing the rules on you. You may also have to deal with fraud, drug traffickers and other possible criminal activity.
A senior official from Olam recently told me that the health and safety of employees is the number one risk that his company faces – and that cybersecurity is number two. You will have to deal with both.
You won’t be able to merchandise commodities if you don’t have suppliers and customers. The people you will deal with will probably be from different countries; you will have to become accustomed to dealing with people from other races, cultures and creeds. Many of these people will become your friends.
Meeting and interacting with clients was always the most enriching part of my life as a commodity trader. One week I could be wandering in the cane fields in Brazil, Thailand or India. The next, I could be walking the streets of Manhattan visiting hedge fund managers.
You will also have to work in a team. The movies depict James Bond as a lone wolf who saves the world single-handedly, but he would not work alone in real life. The best teams are diversified, with people of different skillsets, of different genders, and from other races and backgrounds. Commodity trading is a global business, and you will soon lose any prejudices that you may still be carrying around with you.
Finally, if you want an idea of what to expect from a career in commodity trading, you couldn’t do better than to watch this video interview of Dave Berhends, one of the world’s top coffee traders.
In their review of the World for Sale, The Times writes that commodity traders are the true Masters of the Universe. Fortunately, that is not true, but our business is still a great one to be involved in – especially if you are a woman.
© Commodity Conversations ® 2021