Commodity Trade Finance – Still the Banks’ Domain


Commodity trade finance is not something we actively write about, but it is such a key part of world trade that it's important for readers to understand a bit about how this form of goods flow gets financed.

In a study done by the Bank for International Settlement (“BIS”) examining bank trade finance lending, commodity trade finance is a market dominated by the banks, and at that, very few global banks.

Commodity Trade Finance Characteristics

It is natural for commodity transactions to remain in the bank domain for several reasons.

  • They are big – buying oil shipments or wheat is controlled by big private companies like Cargill, Trafigura, Vitol, etc.  and transaction sizes are in the millions
  • You can manage the collateral – commodities are real collateral that can be valued by market indices. Operation risk can be insured. For example, you can grab collateral if need be. With other goods, say spare parts, or apparel, how would you value?
  • Prices can fluctuate wildly in a short period of time – this market risk can be controlled to some degree through hedging
  • Commodities trade actively

If properly managed, the risk then really comes down to the credit risk of counter-parties, which is something banks generally do well.

Who Funds These Transactions?

The BIS report stated that historically, most of this trade has been dominated by European banks, particularly French and Swiss banks, which reportedly provided up to 80% of the financing for commodities trading worldwide at one point. Many of the largest commodity trading companies are located in Switzerland (egs. Tate and Lyle, Glencore, Cargill International, Vitol Group, Trafigura to name a few).  Commodity trade finance alone in Switzerland is  estimated to be around US$1,7 trillion size market.

But during the Great Recession of 2008, European banks like BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole had to reduce their exposures in commodity financing as a result of a lack of access to US dollars. However, true to form, as global banks have balance sheet, U.S. and Asian banks as well as banks in the Middle East are now increasing their share of commodity finance.

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