An interview with Swithun Still

Good morning Swithun, could you tell us a little bit about your company Solaris?

We are essentially focused on milling wheat and corn. For the past two seasons Solaris has been the largest trader of Russian corn. Compared to Ukraine, Russia is not a big exporter of corn; this season Russia will export just over five million tonnes compared to Ukraine with eighteen million.

However, Russia is a powerhouse for wheat. It was the largest exporter of wheat in the world last season. Russia is a veritable focal point for wheat prices worldwide. People really look to see the price at which Russian 12.5 percent protein wheat is trading to help them set wheat prices in other parts of the world.

We did a large programme of corn into Asia last year, namely South Korea and Vietnam. Russian corn has a huge competitive advantage in terms of quality. There is a smaller percentage of damaged kernels (often under 2% as opposed to the contractual maximum of 5%) and a similarly low percentage of broken kernels. Most important of all: it is all non-genetically modified (non-GMO), which is ironic as we are one of the largest traders of non-GMO corn in the world and are based in the same small town as Monsanto, who manufacture GM corn seeds.

The biggest challenge for Russian agriculture is the extremes of temperature – very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Agriculture is very weather dependent. The majority of production is winter wheat, which is sown in September-October and harvested in July. Acreage is split 50/50 between winter and spring wheat but the yield and therefore the production is higher for winter wheat. Spring wheat is sown in areas that are too cold for winter wheat. The earth is too hard for farmers to get the seeds into the ground and even if they could plant the stuff it would just die. The winter temperatures go as low as minus 30 or minus 40 degrees Centigrade in Siberia.

Are your deals based on flat price or are you hedged somehow?

Almost all of our transactions are traded flat price. We hedge some of our exposure with derivative contracts: futures or options that are traded on exchanges such as Chicago, Kansas, LIFFE or MATIF, or through ‘Over the Counter’ or “OTC” contracts with brokers in London & Chicago. We also hedge our currency exposure as we buy often in roubles, but sell in US dollars or Euros.

The correlation between Chicago and Black Sea wheat is not actually sufficient to be a good hedge. Some put the correlation at 25 percent. Russian 12.5 percent milling wheat is closer to the wheat quality traded in Kansas City, rather than the soft red wheat that is traded on Chicago. Soft red wheat is an inferior quality, low protein biscuit or even feed wheat – as indeed is MATIF – with only 11 percent protein and few milling specifications.

Nonetheless we tend to hedge on Chicago because it is more liquid than Kansas. We have also been instrumental in getting a new product off the ground, which is called a Black Sea swap, which is a non deliverable derivative based on the price of Russian 12.5% normalised to a parity of FOB Novorossisk. Brokers use the benchmark pricing of PLATTS to price this market and counterparties are approved on the same basis as counterparties in any cash traded business with the broker checking with both buyer and seller that they are approved counterparts. There is some interest to have this product cleared by an exchange and given that Russian milling wheat prices have become such a benchmark for global trade I predict that this will only be a matter of time before it comes to fruition.

However the best hedge for Russian wheat is…. Russian wheat! We prefer to hedge ourselves on the physical markets rather than the futures markets.

How does that work?

We generally only sell forward two to three months, so a lot of the trades we do are relatively spot, meaning that they will be executed within four to six weeks from the date concluded. A lot of our positions are backed up or hedged by our Russian partners or other suppliers. We buy from them on a FOB basis and often convert the sales into CIFFO and take on both the risks and rewards of providing such a service to our clients.

We often hedge our sales of Russian corn, which is a relatively illiquid market, by buying Ukrainian corn. So we might sell Russian corn for shipment in September and buy Ukrainian corn as hedge for delivery in October. Then when we finally cover our sale of Russian corn we sell out the Ukrainian corn that we bought as a hedge. We do this to reduce our risk exposure on movements in the flat price.

We are effectively trading the differentials between different qualities, geographies and different shipments. We try to be relatively cautious in taking large long or short positions on the market and we will always monitor our position limits and the amount of risk that we are taking. We try to keep risks within pre-defined limits – limits that are relatively conservative. This summer we will be implementing a new software system that tracks our positions and can calculate our profit and loss; our value-at-risk (VAR), issue invoices and keep track of our inventories.

This is not the sort of image that most people have of commodity trading, but it is what most traders do – at least physical traders. We are not big speculators. You can easily lose a huge amount of money if you go off and take flat price positions – and then fall in love with them!

How do you think commodity markets are going to change over the next few years?

There is going to be further consolidation – for better or worse. Certain big trading companies want to increase their global footprint and secure their positions as suppliers of food commodities from different origins.

There is a lot of competition in the agri-markets and trading companies are looking at ways to add value to their operations. One way is through owning processing or logistical assets, or even land. ADM for example loses money now on trading but makes it on processing. Glencore Ags recently said that less than fifteen percent of their profits come from trading, while the rest comes from assets. I think that is the future for the bigger players. They need these huge assets.

So traders are moving towards owning assets while maintaining a global trading presence at origin and destination.

Would you recommend young people to go into the commodity business?

One hundred per cent – yes! It is a fascinating industry to be involved in. It is a real business – real grain moving from real farmers to produce real food such as bread and pasta. It is not a bunch of people sitting around a computer screen betting on price moves.

What advice would you give to some one just starting?

Learn and listen and talk to as many people as you can in the business. Try to get some work experience and of course join GAFTA so as to learn about the trade by taking a course such as the Foundation Course or the Distance Learning Programme (DLP).

Thank you Swithun for your time.

The full version of this interview appears in my new book Commodity Conversations, available now on Amazon

Author: Jonathan

After 37 years as a commodity trader and analyst, Jonathan Kingsman is now chairman of Bonsucro, a non-for-profit organisation that promotes environmental sustainability and human rights within the sugarcane sector. Jonathan is married with four grown up children and lives in Lausanne Switzerland. He is the Editor of The Sugar Trading Manual and author of The Sugar Casino. Godstone is his first novel.

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