Glencore Has Bigger Risk Appetite Than Wall Street

Glencore’s appetite for risk in commodities trading is bigger than that of leading Wall Street banks, according to information released by the banks underwriting the trading house’s multibillion-dollar flotation.

The headquarters of the Swiss commodities giant Glencore in Baar, Switzerland.
Sebastian Derungs | AFP | Getty Images
The headquarters of the Swiss commodities giant Glencore in Baar, Switzerland.

The banks’ reports ahead of Glencore’s initial public offering shed new light on the financial activities of the world’s largest commodities trader.

Glencore’s risk appetite will be an important factor for investors weighing this month’s offering in London and Hong Kong.

The research reveals that Glencorecould have lost a daily $42.5 million last year on average when measured by the so-called “value-at-risk” measure, much more than the average $25.7 million put at risk each day in 2010 in commodities trading by Goldman Sachs , Morgan Stanley , Barclays Capital and JPMorgan .

The four banks are the largest commodities dealers by revenues in the financial sector. Daily value-at-risk (VAR) is a common industry yardstick used to measure potential losses.

The gauge has its critics, as it measures potential losses on regular trading days, but does not capture unusual trading situations such as during a war or in a crisis.

Glencore told the nine banks behind its IPO syndicate that it had a $100 million limit on VAR, but added that it had not exceeded that limit since at least January 2008. The trading house’s VAR fell to $26.4 million in 2009 after peaking in 2008 at $50.1 million.

The higher risk-taking by Glencore is partly explained by the physical nature of its business, which makes price hedging difficult. For example, it trades a large amount of Russian oil, but hedging instruments such as Brent and West Texas Intermediate futures reflect the cost of crude in Europe and the US.

The physical nature of the trading implies that Glencore’s VAR starts from a base of about $25 million-$30 million, according to people familiar with the trading house.

But the higher figure also reflects the fact that Glencore does speculate in the market from time to time.

“Price exposures are normally hedged,” Ephrem Ravi, lead analyst on Morgan Stanley’s report, wrote in a note for investors.

He added: “Nevertheless, the company sometimes engages in deliberate price exposures to leverage on the insight it has into certain commodity markets.” Olivia Ker, lead analyst for UBS, cautioned that, although Glencore had a limit of $100 million for its daily VAR, the company had not explained how it responded when it sustained a loss.

“If it is in the habit of reducing risk after a loss, then we can be confident that risk is well controlled,” Ms Ker wrote.

“But, if Glencore is in the habit of sticking with exposure after a loss to back the original trade, then the risks are that larger losses may accrue over a period of days.”

The Swiss-based company is aiming to sell a stake of 15-20 percent, worth up to $12.1 billion. The company is set to issue its prospectus, providing detailed information about its activities, later this week.