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Booming LNG market steps out of the dark as transparency push grows

[SINGAPORE] Long dominated by deals struck in secret, the US$230 billion liquefied natural gas industry is slowly seeing light as global traders push for more transparency in the booming market.

Over the past two months, commodity price agency S&P Global Platts and Australia-headquartered LNG trading marketplace Global LNG Exchange (GLX) facilitated the first transparent physical trades in their platforms.

It was the first time in nearly a decade since Platts kicked off its Asian LNG derivative price assessment that it disclosed trading parties of a physical trade on its platform.

Pricing transparency is critical to boost liquidity in commodity markets but is often tough to do particularly in cash contracts with participants wary about exposing trading positions.

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LNG producers also prefer fixed, long-term contracts because they provide steady revenues needed to fund multi-billion dollar projects.

But the LNG trading landscape is slowly changing, as more market participants push for transparency and Japan's JERA, the world's biggest LNG buyer, and leading merchants like Vitol expand their trading desks.

"These first few transparent bids or offers are the first steps to encourage greater market participation in using the (Platts) marker to price cargoes," said Edmund Siau, analyst with energy consultancy FGE.

Platts started publishing a daily Asian LNG price assessment in 2009. But it was only in 2016 that volumes picked up, then more than tripled in 2017. Volumes in January-May this year have already surpassed last year's, according to Platts data.

And for the first time, Platts last week published the counterparties of one LNG trade for its pricing process, three weeks after receiving its first transparent bid from commodity trader Trafigura.

"We have seen a significant number of market participants that have stated they would like to see a more transparent (price) process," said Jonty Rushforth, senior director of energy pricing at Platts.

Platts has approved six other entities in the transparent bidding process including Britain's BP, Japan's Itochu, Swiss Vitol, Singapore's Pavilion Gas and Diamond Gas International, a subsidiary of Japan's Mitsubishi Corp.

Perth-headquartered GLX, an online platform for physical cargoes launched in April 2017, saw its first trade done in May this year as its members more than doubled to 44 from last December, most of them from Asia, which imports over 70 per cent of the world's LNG.

GLX chief executive Damien Criddle said the platform has received four tenders since its launch.

LONG WAY TO GO

Petronas LNG, a subsidiary of Malaysia's state-owned Petronas and a major producer of the fuel, completed the first GLX deal in late May.

"Traders spend a lot of time talking on a bilateral basis with other traders to see whether they can sell spot cargoes," Ahmad Adly Alias, vice president of Petronas LNG marketing and trading division said at a conference in late May, adding that a platform like GLX was a more effective way for price discovery.

On Tuesday, CME Group Inc said it will develop the first physically deliverable US LNG futures contract on its New York Mercantile Exchange.

Still, LNG has a long way to go before reaching the level of liquidity and transparency in oil - by far the world's most traded commodity - but which only came after many years. Steelmaking raw material iron ore only shifted to transparent spot pricing after four decades of yearly-set contracts.

Majority of LNG in Asia remains under opaque long-term contracts linked to the price of oil, as producers opt for steady revenues to fund LNG export projects, some of which have cost US$50 billion to develop, said FGE's Siau.

"Until providers of project debt and equity are comfortable with the risks and rewards of using a spot LNG index, we expect the proportion of spot LNG available will be limited," he said.

REUTERS