Sinopec Says It Lost $688 Million on ‘Misjudged’ Oil Prices

(Bloomberg) -- China’s largest oil refiner said its trading unit lost almost $700 million last year after being wrong-footed by zigzagging markets, revealing one of the biggest losses by a commodity trader in the last decade.

Sinopec blamed the losses at its Unipec unit in part on “inappropriate hedging techniques” and said it closed its positions after discovering the problem. Oil plunged sharply in late November and December, prompting traders to speculate that Unipec may have contributed to the price drop as it unwound positions.

It marks a sharp reversal of fortunes for Unipec, which has grown over the last 25 years to become one of the largest and most aggressive oil traders. With operations spanning London to Singapore, the company trades about 5 million barrels a day, according to people familiar with the matter, putting it ahead of other giant merchants such as Glencore Plc and Trafigura Group.

Sinopec said its trading arm reported operating losses of $688 million for the full year of 2018. That means the underlying loss could have been larger, but offset by other gains.

Sinopec Says It Lost $688 Million on ‘Misjudged’ Oil Prices

“Unipec played with probably lousy controls and lost as markets turned,” said Jean-Francois Lambert, a former commodity trade finance banker at HSBC Holdings Plc and industry consultant. “Beijing will be very upset and Unipec, if it survives, will be given very tight guidelines: ensure sufficient supply and that’s it.”

There have been bigger oil trading busts. Metallgesellschaft AG suffered a $1.2 billion loss in 1994 when a hedging strategy failed. But it eclipses China Aviation Oil’s infamous $550 million blunder in 2004 when it fell foul of a surge in oil prices that forced it close speculative trades.

The troubles at Unipec were unearthed as oil prices began to crash in the final quarter of last year. Brent crude, the global benchmark, tumbled from nearly $87 in October to just below $50 after Christmas.

Inappropriate Hedging

The loss was first reported in late December and led to the suspension of two top executives.

“Sinopec discovered in its regular supervision that there were unusual financial data in the hedging business of Unipec,” it said in a statement. “Further investigations have indicated that the misjudgment about the global crude oil price trend and inappropriate hedging techniques applied for certain parts of hedging positions” resulted in the losses.

The company, officially known as China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., then terminated the transactions and took measures to prevent further losses.

Oil Drop

Oil trading executives speculated that the situation might have contributed to the sharp drop in oil prices in December, when large sell orders came in a market deprived of liquidity due to the Christmas holiday period. While other factors were also behind the global price move, “the unwinding of positions held by them would have contributed to the volatility,” said Amrita Sen at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd.

The company and its trading unit are “under normal production and operation,” it said in a stock market filing on Friday. In another statement it said its hedging activities follow relevant regulations, and that it has directed Unipec to enhance internal policies, ensure strict adherence to relevant procedures and have zero tolerance for behavior not in line with rules and regulations.

As a refiner, Sinopec is exposed to fluctuations in the cost of the oil it processes, said John Driscoll, a former oil trader and the chief strategist at JTD Energy Services Pte Ltd. It may have protected itself against rising prices as crude soared to a four-year high in October, leaving it exposed to the sharp correction that followed, he said.

“You have a market that, peak-to-trough, dropped more than 40 percent in a few months. That’s huge,” Driscoll said. “It’s not surprising seeing a buy-side hedger like a major crude importer taking a big hit. In that kind of an environment, everyone who hedges faces a moment of reckoning.”

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