Regulatory push on the banking sector has swung the pendulum in favour of trading houses, which are now the risk-takers and winners in commodity trade ﬁnancing. But how prudent is it to delegate the ﬂow of the world’s primary goods among only a small set of companies? Aleya Begum reports.
Increasing policy and regulatory requirements are making banks shy away from funding commodity trade. With Basel III requirements barely nearing implementation, there are already talks of Basel III reconciled, or Basel IV, as dubbed by the banking sector. Add to that evolving and unclear sanctions policies, weak commodities prices, a frail global economy, major shifts in the global political sphere and what do you get? Uncertainty on all fronts. But while the banks are busy “de-risking” in an attempt to counter these unknowns, trading houses are stepping in to ﬁll the shortfall.
Mis-leveraged leverage ratio
One of the primary challenges that banks’ commodity teams are facing is the leverage ratio. Part of the Basel framework, the ratio focuses on return on assets (ROA). Since commodity trade ﬁnance is a low-risk, low-reward, but big-volume business, its ROA is not particularly impressive. What the leverage ratio fails to do is factor in the low-risk assurance of the transaction, and therefore, compared to other bank activity, trade and commodity trade ﬁnance pale in comparison.
“You get a better return for a worse risk, so rather counterintuitively, the leverage ratio, which is meant to make banks less leveraged and more safe, steers banks away from low-risk business as everyone within the bank competes to use the same balance sheet. Trade ﬁnance in general has been hit quite hard by this,” says Deutsche Bank’s global head of structured commodity trade ﬁnance John MacNamara.
As well as the leverage ratio, the Basel framework also requires banks to have a certain amount of capital reserved for safekeeping. This means that there is less money in the pot compared to before. Outside of Basel, anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) regulations are also compounding the situation. Lead times for getting new clients and transactions onboard are longer due to higher thresholds.
“Regulatory pressure, capital requirements and an unco-ordinated push for more transparency and ﬁght against capital crime is creating a very uncomfortable environment for the banking industry these days,” says founder and managing partner at Lambert Commodities, Jean-Francois Lambert. “Banks are now constantly reassessing the proﬁtability or the worthiness of their lending activities and do not hesitate to exit a business which does not provide the required level of return or is raising any reputational concern.”
The knock-on effect of this has been less funding availability, especially for producers and the smaller trading companies.
“Over the past couple of years, all the facilities put in place by the banks have generally decreased, especially for the second-tier and third-tier type of trading companies,” says Olivier Boujol, director and global head of structured trade ﬁnance at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Many are now exclusively focusing on the large corporates, he adds.
The “nimble” trader
As the banks struggle to cope with the burden of compliance, larger trading houses have stepped in to ﬁll the gap in the market. While they are exposed to the same governance regulations, traders are not subject to the same capital, leverage and liquidation requirements as the banks. Also working in their favour is the prevailing low price of commodities, which reduces working capital needs. So unlike the bankers, trading houses ﬁnd themselves in a less constrained and favourably cash-rich position.
“Large corporates like ADM or Bunge don’t need bank facilities, which are usually used as more of a backstop than the real line that we draw under. We have a lot of cash so we don’t really need much ﬁnancing these days,” says Boujol.
Banks are increasingly being seen as “slow” says Olivier Bazin, partner at law ﬁrm Holman Fenwick Willan (HFW). “So who’s stepping in? The more nimble trader. They have taken on some of the traditional roles of the banks. Structured ﬁnance teams and traders in [for example] Mercuria, Traﬁgura: they’re all ex-bankers. They will arrange the deal and either fund it themselves or offer it to banks. There are traders who now make more money out of providing ﬁnance than actually buying the product.”
The bigger trading houses also have the luxury of larger risk and compliance departments, while most commodity trade ﬁnance teams in banks are much more modest. With a number of fraud cases scarring some banks over the last few years, many are now happier to limit their exposure to the trader, who then on-lends to smaller traders and producers.
“The big traders these days have a lot of governance. They have compliance departments, often measured in hundreds, and rules and regulations they comply with. This makes it easier for the banks to lend directly to the trader,” says MacNamara.
“Ten years ago we were doing a lot of pre-export ﬁnance where we lent directly to producers who would sell to a range of traders. Now we’re lending to the traders and the traders are on-lending to the producers. I think the landmark deal at the tipping point between PXF and prepayment financing was probably in 2013 when Glencore and Vitol did the jumbo prepayment ﬁnancing for [the long-term purchase of crude oil from] Rosneft.”
Deutsche Bank has done some classical syndicated PXF this year, but they are increasingly rare, he adds.
While the new structure in commodity trade ﬁnancing is certainly lucrative for traders, Boujol at ADM argues that it’s not just about the money.
“You want to make sure your producers are being ﬁnanced and have access to some form of ﬁnancing because you want them to deliver. When you ﬁnance a longer supply chain, whether you ﬁnance the producers or the customers, it’s really just about making sure that you don’t interrupt the chain – that’s the main criteria,” he says. “We do make a little bit of money out of it but I would say that it’s not the primary motivation.”
Funds come knocking
Since the ﬁnancial crisis in 2008, there has also been a notable interest in commodity trade ﬁnance from investment funds. Branded as ‘alternative ﬁnanciers’, these funds started to take an interest when trade ﬁnance remained stable despite the collapse around it. The trouble was, at the time, the funds were looking for signiﬁcantly higher returns than what is typical in low-margined trade ﬁnance. Those expectations were soon adjusted.
“When the funds ﬁrst started knocking on the doors on the back of the global ﬁnancial crisis, they were looking for returns of 15% to 20%. Nobody pays that in trade ﬁnance. As returns everywhere became lower, and interest rates hit rock bottom, target rates went down,” says MacNamara. “More recently they have begun targeting down to 5%, 4% and even 3%. So now there is more [alternative ﬁnance], but I wouldn’t overstate it. They are not in the same league as say Glencore, Vitol or Traﬁgura.”
According to Atanas Djumaliev, head of global commodities at VTB Capital, alternative trade ﬁnance funds are estimated to have less than US$10bn in assets collectively against over US$2tn of bank-intermediated trade ﬁnance. Furthermore, they tend to lend to smaller trading houses or manufacturers for secured claims with no more than 180 days’ maturity, rather than to major traders.
While they may not be playing in the big league, Boujol points out that some of the funds entering the game have hit a sweet spot. With SMEs struggling to access ﬁnancing, especially in emerging markets, some of these funds have found a real niche, he says.
Also carving out an increasingly signiﬁcant role in the commodity ﬁnancing space are the insurance companies, which have become gradually more present in credit underwriting and providing credit coverage.
“I think that market has really been exponential [in terms of growth] in the past ﬁve or six years and we see more and more large trading houses building credit portfolios with insurance cover, to the extent they can deleverage their balance sheet in selling those assets to banks on an insurance cover basis,” says Boujol. “They have a lot of appetite to create ﬁnance for commodity ﬂows and we and others have been deploying the insurance market pretty aggressively over the past few years.”
The question now is whether the banks will withdraw further from funding commodity trade or whether the pendulum will swing back in their favour. The changing face of regulation could see traders having to comply by the same capital rules, and if commodity prices pick up, their everyday business will become more expensive.
“It’s hard to predict but I would say it is probably for the long term. No company other than trading companies understand the ‘just in time’ nature of producers,” says Boujol at ADM. “Their activity is tied up to our future or existing contracts: it’s people that we know, people that we conduct business with. We can convince the underwriters to cover the credit risk, we can convince the banks who are then more willing to enter with ﬁnancing. I think we are well-placed to offer that type of service.”
But a scenario where commodity trade ﬁnancing becomes exclusively the responsibility of trading houses is a compromising one, believes Lambert at Lambert Commoditites. He warns that the lack of understanding of the strategic importance of commodity trade ﬁnance among industry and regulators needs to be addressed.
“Commodity trade ﬂows make up some 25% of world trade and represent around US$4.5tn. Most of this trade is orchestrated by trading houses. Yet how many companies are we talking about? Maybe 20 to 50 large groups? We are relying on a handful of companies to support the bulk of the most strategic trade, which goes on to make up a majority of the remaining 75%,” he explains. “[But] regulators think that if it’s systematically important then it must be regulated more tightly. Trading houses don’t want to be more regulated so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. This is the way the world is going right now.”
HFW’s Bazin expects to see a reoccurrence of trends witnessed in ship ﬁnance after 2008, when the traditional ﬁnanciers moved out due to declining returns, paving the way for new players.
“I think we are going to see more investment trusts moving into the sector. That means more money around, which would create more competition and pressure for the banks, and prices could get cheaper,” he says.
Meanwhile, MacNamara believes the swinging pendulum is likely to be at the traders’ end for a while longer: “That’s not to say there is no business for the banks, just that more of that business is with the traders. I think both parties bring something to the table, whether it’s the bank or the trader, when they sit in front of a producer.”