China slowdown spells end of big payday for iron ore traders

Tue Sep 10, 2013 5:19am EDT

* Bonuses down; paucity of new jobs for iron ore traders - recruiters

* Banks curbing commodities trading due to regulatory pressures

* Some trading firms have expanded iron ore ops, but weighing risks

By Manolo Serapio Jr and Silvia Antonioli

SINGAPORE/LONDON, Sept 10 (Reuters) - With China's insatiable appetite for iron ore cooling alongside a slowing economy, once in-demand traders of the steelmaking raw material face a new reality: fewer financial perks and tougher resume requirements.

Anyone without a network of connections in top market China need not apply. And the days of guaranteed bonuses to attract the best talent are largely over. Just two years ago, iron ore traders were the envy of even investment bankers, a famously well-paid breed of financial players.

"Two years ago, banks were all over the market. If you could spell iron ore, they wanted you in their team," said Paul French, the London-based global head of commodities at recruiting firm Global Sage.

Now, with iron ore prices retreating from a record near $200 a tonne in 2011 to $134.80, recruiters say the phones are not ringing like they used to.

"I haven't had a requirement for an iron ore trader for some time. Eighteen months ago we were regularly asked about it and I don't think we've been asked about it in the last 12 months," said Charles Crichton, Asia general manager at UK-based Commodity Appointments.

"The boom of iron ore is not there at the moment to justify paying someone a large amount of money in order to get them across the line because they're never going to make it back for you."

Iron ore became the new pot of gold when a shift away from four decades of annual pricing to a shorter, spot-based system in 2010 opened the door to more players.

At the same time, stimulus-led economic growth in China after the global financial crisis helped ramp up demand for the raw material, driving its price to an all-time high in February 2011.

Traders of the raw material, the commodity most closely linked to China's fortunes, became among the best paid and most sought after in the trading community.

While the basic salaries are mostly unchanged, the performance-related bonuses are on average lower than they used to be and guaranteed bonuses are now a rarity, recruiters said.

The average annual compensation at banks and trading houses for a mid-level iron ore trader is a basic salary in the range of $150,000-$200,000 plus an average bonus of 10 percent of the profit the trader makes for a company, according to a recruiter.

A top role such as global head of iron ore at a bank could fetch a salary of about $400,000, and a bonus including cash and stock of as much as $1.5-$2 million.

SHAKEOUT IN THE RANKS

As China's economic growth has slowed in the past two years, iron ore prices have dropped. In September 2012, they slumped to a three-year low of $86.70 a tonne. This year, China is targeting GDP growth of 7.5 percent, the slowest in 23 years.

And with no other country coming close to being able to absorb the slack left by China, iron ore prices risk years of decline as a major oversupply swamps demand, with some forecasting prices to be cut in half by 2015.

Banks globally are moving away from commodities trading due to regulatory pressure and shrinking revenues, leading to a pool of surplus traders and a shakeout in the ranks.

Earlier this year, Deutsche Bank steel trader Geoff Arnold left the German bank. Tom Baldwin, the bank's iron ore trader, has also left to join BTG Pactual, sources said.

Two iron ore traders at Macquarie have left to join the mining division of top steelmaker ArcelorMittal, although the Australian bank says it is still committed to trade iron ore, according to industry sources. ArcelorMittal and Macquarie declined to comment.

JPMorgan said in July it would seek strategic alternatives for its physical oil, gas, power and metals trading division, and Morgan Stanley is said to be exploring options for its commodities business. French bank Natixis said last month it has agreed to sell its London-based commodities brokerage to Chinese brokerage GF Securities.

The changed landscape means iron ore traders are finding themselves in a buyer's market.

"When the banks came in they were able to pay traders a two-year guaranteed bonus. That was common and now it is really hard to get," said Richard Usher at London-based dry bulk commodity recruiter CFI search.

TRADING FIRMS WEIGH SITUATION

To be sure, major trading companies such as Cargill and Trafigura are still in a hiring mode. Cargill, which trades around 50 million tonnes of iron ore a year, is looking to add two to three more staff in its physical trading business that already employs 13-15 people in China and Singapore, according to a source familiar with the company's plans.

And in the past year, two of the world's biggest oil traders, Vitol and Mercuria, have expanded into base metals.

But even trading companies are reassessing the situation given the increasing challenges in China.

UK's Stemcor, the world's largest independent steel trader, for instance, is restructuring its business and cutting some jobs in response to weak market conditions

Iron ore traders may still be able to secure jobs today that pay a basic annual salary of $150,000-$200,000, but only those with 5-6 years of work experience and a network of buyers in China, said a Shanghai-based trader.

"Today you need to have people who are very well connected. If you have China-related experience then you have good demand, if you don't then you're dead meat," the trader said.

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