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Last Updated: July 24, 2018
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By Kasper Walet, Founder and Partner AI Energizer and Maycroft

 

I recently read a very interesting article in the Financial Times about how commodity trading firms are still lagging behind other trading sectors in using Artificial Intelligence solutions. but that the industry is trying hard to catch up. These findings are in line with my practical experiences in our advisory services business: AI Energizer.

Particularly in today’s market situation where margins are squeezed, commodity traders are looking for tools that could help them to increase profitability. Intelligent technologies such as robotic process automation and machine learning, offer new opportunities to improve process performance and realize significant cost savings. These technologies can be implemented in short sprints, focused on a specific problem, with manageable costs.

If you click here, you can read our white paper about successful AI projects we executed for two of the leading energy commodity trading firms in Europe.

Compared to other financial and industrial sectors, commodity traders are coming from way behind. Currency, equities and interest-rates investors have already used algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn data into successful trades for years. Now, commodity traders are seeking ways of exploiting their information to help them profit from price swings as well. It really is a combination of knowing what to look for and using the right mathematical tools for it.

Traders are looking to gather data on a large scale and run machine-learning algorithms to find patterns linking fundamentals with price movements, thus improve decision-making in trading and, as a result, the profitability. With a properly trained algorithm and a sufficiently sized historical data set, a company using machine learning to identify patterns in the trading data - even when the data has inconsistencies – will reduce redundant trades and streamline the entire process. To accommodate all this commodity trading firms are investing in people, processes and systems to centralize their data.

Despite this new enthusiasm, the road to electronification may not come easily. One issue is that some of the larger commodities traders face internal resistance in centralizing information on one platform. With each desk in a trading house in charge of its profit-and-loss account, data are closely guarded even from colleagues. The move to ‘share all our data with each other’ is a very, very big cultural shift.

Another problem is that in some trading houses, staff operate on multiple technology platforms, with different units using separate systems. Rather than focusing on analytics, some data scientists and engineers are having to focus on harmonizing the platforms before bringing on the data from different parts of the company. Even where the digital infrastructure is in place, it may take some time before AI becomes a large part of commodities trading.

Company leaders should start with the following three steps:

Step 1: Focus on value

As AI can solve targeted problems, it's up to company leaders to identify applications that offer the most potential value. Demonstrating strong returns in a short time will convert the cynics. AI projects typically happen in a series of sprints and can be completed in around 3-4 months.

Step 2: Change Management

Automation alone does not save money or improve performance: People and processes will also have to change. This is an area where there is understandable anxiety; automation stokes fears that machines will take people's jobs. But practice suggests that many of the tasks being automated are activities people tend not to want to undertake, such as spending half the day pulling and loading data. Or they are tasks for which small automation can actually improve people's performance - for instance, by introducing predictive algorithms that help them make better decisions and free up their time for more rewarding, interesting, and higher­ value-add activities.

This is an entirely new way of working, and company leaders will need to ensure that both they and their people have the right knowledge and skills, such as programming and data science knowledge and process improvement skills - to be successful. And they'll need to ensure that everyone's mind-set and behaviors also shift accordingly.

Step 3: Strategy is King

The backbone of this new way of working is strategy. Companies need to know their own strengths. There will be "keep the lights on" activities that can become touchless, as well as differentiating activities that should become increasingly intelligent. Moreover, companies need to take a fresh look at their organizational structure to ensure that it gives teams the freedom to develop creative solutions and experiment.

Conclusion

Concluding we can say that digitization is increasingly driving trading, and needs to be embraced, as many commodities executives believe. “It’s another tool that traders have to understand.”

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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