Spread bets

Why big oil is beefing up its trading arms

A volatile world makes for choppy markets, and choppy markets make for rich profits

IN THE 1950S the oil market was in the gift of the “Seven Sisters”. These giant Western firms controlled 85% of global crude reserves, as well as the entire production process, from the well to the pump. They fixed prices and divvied up markets between themselves. Trading oil outside of the clan was virtually impossible. By the 1970s that dominance was cracked wide open. Arab oil embargoes, nationalisation of oil production in the Persian Gulf and the arrival of buccaneering trading houses such as Glencore, Vitol and Trafigura saw the Sisters lose their sway. By 1979, the independent traders were responsible for trading two-fifths of the world’s oil.

The world is in turmoil again—and not only because the conflict between Israel and Hamas is at risk of escalating dangerously. Russia’s war in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions between the West and China, and fitful global efforts to arrest climate change are all injecting volatility into oil markets (see chart 1). Gross profits of commodity traders, which thrive in uncertain times, increased 60% in 2022, to $115bn, according to Oliver Wyman, a consultancy. Yet this time it is not the upstarts that have been muscling in. It is the descendants of the Seven Sisters and their fellow oil giants, which see trading as an ever-bigger part of their future.

The companies do not like to talk about this part of their business. Their traders’ profits are hidden away in other parts of the organisation. Chief executives bat away prying…