* Conoco eyes entry into new trading markets
* Reorganization of supply arm designed to support growth
* Move mirrors trading of big rivals like BP, Shell (Updates with detail on ConocoPhillips past trading activity)
By Robert Campbell
HOUSTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - U.S. oil major ConocoPhillips Co (COP.N) wants to grab a bigger chunk of global oil trading, including markets where it has not normally been active, three people familiar with the firm’s plans said this week.
The move marks a departure from ConocoPhillips conservative approach to trading. The company, in its 2008 annual report filed with U.S. securities regulators, described its trading business as “limited” and said it was “immaterial” to the company’s earnings or cash flow according to regulatory filings.
By contrast, BP Plc (BP.L), long one of the most aggressive and ambitious market players, allows its traders to make bets that could under the worst circumstances cause losses of $100 million in a single day, according to its most recent annual report.
ConocoPhillips declined to comment on trading activities.
The planned expansion of ConocoPhillip’s global trading business was a major part of the motivation behind the recently disclosed reshuffling of its trading arm, which saw the bulk of the company’s risk-taking trading centralized in London.
“We’re looking at every tender now and we want to play a role in those where we weren’t present before,” said a ConocoPhillips trader.
The overhaul will take the Houston-based company into markets where it does not have significant oil production or processing assets, including both crude oil and refined products markets.
Although Conoco owns three refineries in Europe and shares in a fourth plant in Germany and a refinery in Malaysia, its downstream activity has been largely focused on the United States where it is one of the biggest oil refiners and marketers.
This vision of broadened trading activities would put Conoco into the same league as the other major oil companies, which already operate sophisticated worldwide trading arms that aim to wring profit out of the daily flows of oil between different parts of the world.
Supermajors BP and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L) have long fattened profits by taking advantage of dislocations in regional oil markets to move cheaper oil to places where prices are higher.
The current contango structure of the oil futures market, where prices for oil to be delivered later in the year are higher than those earlier in the year, has also helped bolster many companies’ bottom lines, including Conoco, by making it possible to earn a profit by buying crude oil for storage while selling higher-priced futures to lock in gains.
The brutal environment for oil refiners, which led to Conoco’s downstream unit bleeding $215 million in the last quarter of 2009, is adding a sense of urgency to the drive to restructure trading operations at many oil companies in a bid to find profits and reduce costs.
Other market participants are already noticing Conoco taking a more aggressive role in the Americas where it has the bulk of its refining and marketing assets.
“They’re making some bigger moves in the U.S. and other markets. They’re more prominent than before,” said a U.S. crude oil broker.
U.S. market sources say Conoco has been among the leaders of an attempt to kick start over-the-counter trading against the Argus Sour Crude Index, the new benchmark selected by Saudi Arabia to price crude oil shipments to American customers. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Leff in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)