The world's largest oil trader saw profits dive 70% at the start of 2020 as prices crumbled

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The world's largest oil trader saw profits dive 70% at the start of 2020 as prices crumbled
An oil worker checks a pump jackShutterstock
  • The Financial Times reported that oil trading giant Vitol saw profits plunge in the first quarter of 2020, dropping from around $600 million in Q1 last year, to just $180 million now, a fall of 70%.
  • The firm, the world's largest oil trader, was hit hard by the crash in oil prices, and by a bet by one trader that turned sour, the FT reported.
  • US oil prices turned negative in mid-April due to tanking demand during the pandemic and lack of storage space.
  • Vitol is said to have "done well" in the week prices turned negative, the FT added.

The oil market crash in late April blindsied many in the markets, and hardly anyone was spared — not even the world's largest oil trader.

The Financial Times reported Tuesday, citing multiple confidential sources, that Vitol's net income fell 70% in the first quarter to $180 million. During the same period last year the company made around $600 million, the FT said.

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As the FT reports, Vitol's significant loss of income during the crash likely came as a surprise to CEO Russell Hardy, who in February said on Bloomberg TV that: "The expectation of the market today is it's not going to get significantly worse than what we've seen."

Hardy's comments came before Saudi Arabia and Russia kicked off a price war in March, and demand for the commodity took a massive beating during the pandemic with every major economy placed under lockdown.

The US oil market also faced negative prices in April after the May futures contract expired, forcing traders to face taking physical delivery of their oil, or sell it at a loss.

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Part of Vitol's struggle, the FT reported, was caused by a bet by one partner — Yaoyao Liu — who the newspaper said built a large position betting on an oil recovery after it's initial crash in late February and early March.

The newspaper, which referred to Liu as a "whizz kid," said he cited China's speedy move out of lockdown as showing that government's could handle the virus quickly, and that oil demand would recover. However, the FT added, the "bet turned sour."

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Brent crude, the international benchmark more than halved, falling from almost $60 a barrel to $25 in March.

It is unclear how much Liu's bet lost, but the FT also reported that a recruiter had emailed a rival oil trading house to say that Vitol had lost as much as $1.6 billion.

The company denied that number and demanded a retraction from the recruiter in question, which it received, the FT added.

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While Vitol lost money on Liu's bet, the FT said, it managed to perform strongly during the week in which oil prices dropped below zero for the first time ever, buying up cheap oil for storage and sale once prices recovered.

"Vitol is said by three rivals to have done well," during that week, the FT said.

Vitol did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Financial Times' story when contacted by Business Insider.

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Oil prices have recovered since WTI turned negative in April, partly due to the easing of lockdowns and OPEC production cuts. The international coalition announced it would slash production by 9.7 million barrels over May and June. On Saturday, the OPEC+ extended the production cuts until July.

Both oil benchmarks are trading lower Tuesday, with Brent hovering just above $40.45 per barrel, down 0.9%, and WTI down 0.5% at $37.20 as of 8.30 a.m. ET.

You can read the Financial Times' full story on Vitol here.

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