Two weeks after Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) and Platts changed the way more than half of the world’s crude is valued, the companies along with BP Plc (BP/) and Statoil ASA (STL) are being probed by European antitrust regulators about potential manipulation of oil prices.
The investigation by the European Commission shines a light on how price reporting companies including Platts, the energy news and data provider owned by McGraw Hill Financial Inc., help determine the cost of raw materials used in everything from plastic bags to jet fuel. The suspected violations are related to the Platts’ Market-On-Close assessment process, or so-called window, and may have been ongoing since 2002, Statoil said.
“The industry has developed a high degree of reliance, you can almost call it dependence, on price reporting agencies,” said John Driscoll, the managing director of JTD Energy Services Pte., a Singapore-based energy advisory, and former trading manager at GS Caltex. “They have tremendous discretionary power in their ability to interpret and publish prices.”
Platts has been assessing the cost of oil since at least 1923 when its founder, Warren Platt, started Platt’s Oilgram, a daily newsletter devoted to prices and market information. The influence of reporting companies has grown since the mid-1980s when the industry began using market prices instead of a system where they were set by international oil companies and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The assessments made by reporting companies underpin long-term contracts, short-term, or spot transactions, futures settlements and derivatives. Total SA, Europe’s third-biggest oil company, estimates as much as 80 percent of all crude and oil product deals are linked to reference prices including those published by Platts, while as much as 20 percent use trades on the New York Mercantile Exchange or ICE Futures Europe.
Among the pricing companies, Platts assessments represent as much as 95 percent of crude trades and 90 percent of oil products and over-the-counter derivative deals, Total said in a submission to report on oil pricing last year.
“The commission has concerns that the companies may have colluded in reporting distorted prices to a price reporting agency to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products,” the executive arm of the EU said in its statement yesterday. A single reporting company is involved, Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for Joaquin Almunia, the EU’s antitrust commissioner, told reporters today in Brussels.
Kathleen Tanzy, a Houston-based spokeswoman for Platts, said the company didn’t have anything to add beyond its confirmation yesterday that the European Commission has undertaken a review at its office in London in relation to its price assessment process and that Platts is fully cooperating with the review.
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said allegations of price fixing in the oil market are “incredibly serious,” while answering questions in Parliament.
The Market-on-Close methodology was introduced to Asian refined oil products trading in 1992 and broadened to the international crude market in 2000, according to Platts’s website. The principle of the MOC is that Platts determines prices at a particular time, for example 4:30 p.m. in London.
Assessments are based on transactions during this trading window with deals done nearest to the cut off given precedence over those earlier in the day. If there’s no trade, bids or offers are used as an indicator of where companies were willing to buy or sell. All Platts customers can view the window and any registered company can post bids and offers.
Traders typically communicate information to reporters via instant messenger or telephone. Companies are under no obligation to report trading activity or partake in the MOC process. Platts also has no legal authority over them. If a company does not adhere to the rules or perform on a trade that it reported in the MOC, Platts can refuse to recognize its bids, offers or trades in the assessment process. The risk of not participating is that the company loses influence over the setting of prices.
The MOC process replaced a system whereby reporters made assessments based on volume-weighted averages. This methodology, favored by competitors including Argus Media Ltd., takes into account deals done throughout the day. Platts moved away from this process because it was concerned it could result in assessments that lag actual market levels and aren’t repeatable, Bassam Fattouh, the director of the oil and Middle East programme at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said in a January 2011 report on oil pricing.
The influence of price reporting companies stretches beyond crude and oil products. The assessments published by Platts and its competitors including Argus and ICIS, a unit of Reed Business Information, are used to price the raw materials used in the $2.2 trillion global base chemical industry as well as coal, power, metals, emissions, liquefied natural gas and shipping rates.
While some traders of energy commodities such as crude, fuel oil and diesel are willing to be identified by the price reporting services, the companies buying and selling in less transparent markets such as polyethylene, coal, LNG and metals typically provide information on the understanding their identities and those of their counterparties won’t be published.
High-volume contracts such as North Sea Dated Brent are well-supplied with data from traders. Other markets rely on reporters calling companies to gauge price levels, and depend on their sources being honest when they report their views. For commodities that are not traded or reported every day, price assessors can take into account information such as feedstock costs to determine the price at which trades could take place theoretically.
“Market participants are under no legal or regulatory obligation to report their deals to price reporting agencies or any other body,” Fattouh said in the report. “Whether participants decide to share information depends on their willingness, their reporting policies and their interest in doing so.”
Platts said in March it would introduce a quality premium for Ekofisk and Oseberg crudes, two of the four crude grades that make up the Dated Brent marker used to price more than half the world’s oil. The changes, which started on May 1, were designed boost trading liquidity and to take into account their superior quality over the other two grades, Forties and Brent, that make up Dated Brent, Platts said at the time. That came after Shell made adjustments to its trading contract.
The European investigation marks the third time global pricing benchmarks have drawn the regulators’ scrutiny in the past year following investigations into bank manipulation of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, and ISDAFix, the benchmark for the $379 trillion swaps market.
The International Organization of Security Commissions concluded in October that price assessments could be vulnerable to manipulation because traders participate voluntarily, meaning they may selectively submit only trades that benefit their positions. Total said in a submission to the forum of global regulators that the published oil price is wrong “several times a year.”
Argus and ICIS joined Platts in publishing a self-regulatory code in April 2012 in response to Iosco’s findings.
Lund said he’s been given “very limited” information about which products and markets are being investigated, adding that it’s “important to underline that this is a suspicion, not a conclusion.”
In April 2012, Optiver Holding BV and three employees agreed to pay $14 million to settle market-manipulation allegations by U.S. regulators. The Dutch proprietary-trading firm used a high-frequency trading program called the “Hammer” in 2007 to affect the settlement prices of crude, heating oil and gasoline traded on Nymex. As part of the settlement, Optiver didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing.
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