By now we are all keenly aware of the near-devastating impact that the novel coronavirus has had on oil markets and the fossil fuel industry around the world. (If this is news to you, what rock do you live under and is there room for one more?) But while a lot of the narrative here in the West has been about the historic oil price crash in what some are now referring to as Black April, the oil trading catastrophe actually started much earlier and can largely be traced back to the bad bet of just one man, Singapore’s commodities tycoon Lim Oon Kuin.
The story of the oil market instability that ripped through Asia starting in China is not so much one of struggling oil companies, but a story of banking - that unsexy, behind-the-scenes sector that all too often gets none of the headlines and all of the control. It started way back in January, when most of us were just starting to gain some awareness of a strange and scary illness devastating the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Lim Oon Kuin, sitting in his office 2,000 miles away in SIngapore, watched as this news unfolded and made a decision. He decided that China would gain control of this epidemic before it turned into a pandemic and began stockpiling fuel, quietly adding to his already vast reserves. It should come as no surprise that that bet didn’t work out.
As the coronavirus spread around the world and tanked global crude demand, as well as oil prices, a chain reaction of defaulted loans, was set off in Singapore that is still reverberating in global markets today.
“Banks tried to recover loans from Lim’s company, Hin Leong Trading Pte, triggering one of the biggest scandals in the oil industry this century,” Bloomberg reported about the bad deal that has left a permanent mark on oil trading.
“Lim’s empire collapsed, owing $3.5 billion to 23 banks, and the fallout from the debacle is still reverberating into 2021, shaking out large tracts of the vast and often opaque $4 trillion global oil-trading industry.”
While this may sound like an outright, unmitigated disaster, as with most financial meltdowns, there are winners as well as losers here.
The losers, as always, are the little guys:
“hundreds of small trading firms, many of them employing only a handful of people, who will find it expensive, if not impossible, to meet the increased demands for information from banks that have become wary of lending them money.”
This is to say that the big guys like Trafigura Group and Vitol SA will be gaining business lost by their small competitors, shoring up their oligopoly on trading. They not only benefit from increased confidence from finance companies who have become increasingly risk averse in this environment, they also have the capital to adapt to increased operational costs.
And, as usual, less developed countries will bear the brunt of the economic fallout from this sea change. As banks become more risk averse, re-prioritize their business models, and scale down, it’s going to impact small companies in small economies the most just while they are struggling with all of the other economic hardships related to this pandemic. In this case, the big banks truly were too big to fail. The same can’t be said for the little guys.
This is true, of course, for many market sectors, not just commodities trading. Across the world we’re seeing a sweeping consolidation as big companies are able to weather the financial storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and the little ones are folding. Look no further than the main street of your own town: as mom and pop restaurants struggle to make a sale, lines are down the block at the McDonald’s drive thru. As local shops shut down, Amazon becomes ever more of the globalized goliath it already was.
More than anything, however, the story of Lim Oon Kuin and his bad oil bet is an object lesson in the butterfly effect and outsized might of the all-too opaque trading sector. His will never be a household name, but the impact of his oil gamble will continue to be felt around the world for years to come.