March 19, 2021 [Bloomberg] – Vitol Group reaped record profits of around $3 billion last year as the world’s largest independent oil trader surfed the dramatic moves in energy markets, according to people familiar with the matter.
The results are the latest indication of the bonanza that oil traders enjoyed in 2020, when the commodity plunged amid a Saudi-Russian price war in the early days of the pandemic and then staged a sharp recovery as OPEC+ cut production.
Vitol hasn’t yet closed its 2020 accounts, and the final profit figure may still change, the same people said, asking not to be named because the information isn’t public. The company may also use some of last year’s earnings for write-downs, reducing the final net income figure. Still, the trading house expects to show a net profit of around $3 billion in 2020, significantly higher than the previous record of $2.3 billion booked in both 2009 and 2019, the same people said.
Vitol, which is owned by about 350 of its partner-traders, made a significant chunk of its profits during the second quarter, when oil demand collapsed, allowing traders to buy cheap crude and store it, while locking in a profit by selling forward the oil on the futures market at higher prices.
The so-called contango storage plays saw the big oil traders hoard crude and refined petroleum products in onshore tank farms and even on tankers, which they turned into temporary floating storage facilities.
Each day, Vitol moves 8 million barrels of crude and petroleum products — enough to meet the demand of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. combined. The company, which operates from offices in London but is ultimately controlled through a holding company in Luxembourg, doesn’t announce its results publicly, but shares them with bankers and others.
A Vitol spokeswoman declined to comment.
Vitol is navigating one of its most significant changes in leadership, after the death of long-time Chief Executive and Chairman Ian Taylor last year. Battling cancer, Taylor moved to the role of chairman in 2018, and one of his longtime lieutenants Russell Hardy took over as CEO.
Other top executives have also taken a step back from day-to-day operations, including Mike Loya, who ran the Americas business from Houston and left the company last year, and David Fransen, who was head of the Geneva office. Kho Hui Meng, the long-time head of Asia, also retired in 2020.
The strong results at Vitol echo a trend across the industry. Trafigura Group, the second-largest independent oil trader by volume, reported record profits of $1.6 billion in its financial year to September 2020, while Glencore Plc said its oil traders had also had a record year.
Among the Big Oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which handles 12 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products a day in its in-house trading division, said last week that its oil profits had doubled in 2020 to $2.6 billion. As the independent oil traders, Shell told investors last year it had made significant gains thanks to contango storage plays.
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