Glencore is back from the brink, posting a $1.4 billion profit for 2016. When I first read about the 2016 results, I wondered aloud to a friend whether Ivan Glasenberg would have learned something from the company’s near death experience, or instead would consider the fall someone else’s fault, and the resurrection the result of his genius. I should have known it would be the latter.
Glasenberg has been gloating about the 2016 results, and flaunting them as some sort of vindication. He is openly musing about paying a $20 billion dividend to the company’s “long suffering shareholders,” and is looking for acquisitions, including in North American grain trading.
The fact is that Glencore and Ivan Glasenberg were (and are) just along for a ride on the commodity price roller coaster, which is located at a Chinese amusement park. When the roller coaster plunged as the Chinese economy shuddered in 2015, Glencore plunged along with it. Now, in large part due to Chinese policy moves that have caused the prices of coal and other raw materials to climb again, Glencore has rebounded. Management genius had nothing to do with it.
Well, that’s not completely true. Glasenberg made the conscious choice to transform Glencore from a trading firm that was basically flat price neutral to a mining firm with a big exposure to the flat prices of coal and copper in particular. So the big drop and the rebound are the result of his choice.
When Glencore was in peril in 2015, I said that its fate was dependent on commodity prices, and hence on Chinese policy, rather than any decision that management can make. I said that Glencore was along for the ride. That turned out to be true. It remains true going forward. That was the fundamental strategic choice that has shaped and will continue to shape its performance. Management can at best optimize performance over the cycle, but the cycle will dominate.
Prior to 2015, Glencore management did not optimize. The firm was over-leveraged: it continued to operate with trading-firm like leverage levels even though it faced bigger commodity price risks. Glasenberg/Glencore have cut down on debt in the past year, and this reduces the likelihood of a repeat of 2015–if they stick to a lower leverage policy going forward. But the fact is that the biggest driver of Glencore’s fate is not decisions made in Baar, but the whims of policymakers in Beijing.
It is interesting to compare Glasenberg’s crowing to the more muted tones of other mining firms which have also profited from the rebound. The managements of these other firms apparently realize that what the cycle giveth, the cycle can taketh away. Is Peabody Coal’s management preening over the company’s rebound? No. They are silently grateful that factors outside of their control have turned their way. Similarly, Noble eked out a profit, but its management isn’t breaking their arms patting themselves on the back.
Traders typically make deals of relatively short duration, and it is possible to evaluate trading decisions and trading acumen based on P/L. But by transforming Glencore into a mining company with a supersized trading arm, Glasenberg purposefully made a very long term trade with a duration of years (decades, even): quarterly or even annual fluctuations in P/L tell you little about the wisdom of such a trade. It is therefore rather disturbing to watch Glasenberg gloat on the basis of a profitable year driven by a cyclical turn with which he had exactly zero to do with.
And let’s put this in perspective. Glencore lost $5 billion in 2015. 2016 made up less than 30 percent of that loss. There is still a long way to go to determine whether the big, multi-year trade that Glencore made a few years ago was a smart play or not.
Perhaps Glasenberg still has a trader’s mindset, and a trader’s time horizon, suited for a transaction cycle measured in weeks or months, not years or decades. If so, the company might be in for a big future fall, because its guiding light is apt to mistake luck for skill.