Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Sunday, 24 February 2008

What is it like being an oil trader?

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

Oil traders never stop talking to each other.

Richard Wickham, crude oil trader, StatoilHydro
Oil traders have to weigh up a great deal of information

The most popular software among oil traders is not an oil trading package or even a news service such as Reuters - it is Yahoo Instant Messenger.

"Trading oil is about getting information and knowing where the market is," says Eivind Lie who runs the trading desk at the Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro's offices in London.

"So being a trader your life is pretty much either on Yahoo or on the telephone trying to get an overview of the market."

Keeping in touch

While people trading shares or currencies can get a lot of their information from analysts' notes and computerised trading systems, the oil trader still relies on chatting to a wide range of people, ranging from other traders to specialist oil trading journalists, to try to find out what is going on in the world.

Everything from war or natural disasters to more mundane events such as seasonal changes to temperatures or elections can affect oil prices, so for the traders it pays to be informed.

Richard Wickham, one of the crude oil traders at Statoil, makes his first call to the office on the way to the station after he has dropped his children off at the nursery.

Then as soon as he gets to the office he will read price reports and messages from Statoil staff who have been trading in the US and Asia and talk to the London-based analyst.

After that, the less formal process of talking to people really gets going.

"Collating information is more than half the job," Mr Wickham says.

"Executing trades is almost small in comparison - if you don't have the information you're blind," he says, staring at the four computer screens on his desk, which display a bewildering array of graphs, figures, reports and message windows.

There is little else on the desk besides family photographs and a strategically-placed Norwegian dictionary, for when he is trying to understand messages from the company's head office in Stavanger.

Distressed cargoes

Statoil is one of the world's largest exporters of oil and, with oil topping $100 a barrel on supply concerns, its products are in great demand.

Yet it has a relatively small trading desk in London, with just a handful of traders.

Eivind Lie, London Trading General Manager, StatoilHydro
It's a lifestyle more than a job so you have to enjoy it
Eivind Lie, StatoilHydro

"If it's a weak market then we have to go out and sell it more actively, if it's a strong market they come and buy it from us," Mr Lie says.

Currently, demand is strong, though the traders are nevertheless on the phone, talking to other traders, analysts and brokers.

Everyone in the market for physical oil - as opposed to paper market traders, who do not want to end up owning any oil - is looking for that precious piece of information that will allow them to sell oil for more, or buy it for less.

"From our side, as the seller of oil, we want to get to know the buyer's position," Mr Lie says.

"Are they short of oil, do they really need more?"

The holy grail for buyers is to find a seller having difficulty selling a shipment.

"If you get too close to the delivery date, when it's taken aboard a ship in the North Sea, and it's not sold, then the buyers know that we have what's called a 'distressed cargo', so they will try to get a cheap price for that," he adds.

Volatile market

It may be a good time to be a seller of oil, but the way oil is traded means it can still be nerve-wracking.

"There are a lot of market price contracts where I would sell you oil today, but we price it the day the ship loads, which might be in three of four weeks time," says Sally Clubley, an independent oil consultant who trains oil traders.

"So we've done the deal today, but we don't know the price today and there's a lot of oil traded on that basis."

The trader's life is also made trickier by the volatility in the market, which has seen prices rise and fall by several dollars a barrel in a day.

"Over the last two or three years we've seen a huge increase in volatility and that's probably due to moving more from a physical group of companies trading to a financial-based scenario," he says.

"It's the momentum of these big hedge funds and financial institutions, which makes the market move by percentage points rather than the 30 or 40 cents you used to get three or four years ago."

Those sudden, big movements make it difficult for traders to be off-duty.

"You can never leave your position, even if technically you've left it, ie you've gone home," Ms Clubley says.

"It really is a 24-hour job because they don't trust anybody else with it."

Mr Lie agrees.

"I think some of the traders always carry their phones, even on vacations," he says.

"It's a lifestyle more than a job so you have to enjoy it."

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