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Ships anchored off Singapore, one of the world’s biggest trading hubs for fuel.

Ships anchored off Singapore, one of the world’s biggest trading hubs for fuel.

Photographer: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg

Wrong-Way Bet on Covid Is Changing Oil-Trading Industry Forever

Singapore’s massive fuel-trading scandal is still reverberating into 2021.

In January, as a mysterious illness ripped through the Chinese city of Wuhan, global oil prices plunged. Two thousand miles away in the island state of Singapore, one of the most powerful men in the world of commodities trading, Lim Oon Kuin, quietly added to his vast stockpiles of fuel – making a bet that China would successfully control the spread of the new disease.

That gamble soured quickly. While China did curb the coronavirus at home, the pandemic that followed brought crude oil prices tumbling as much as 70%. 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. 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.