It was a bleak moment for the oil industry. U.S. shale companies were failing by the dozen. Petrostates were on the brink of bankruptcy. Texas roughnecks and Kuwaiti princes alike had watched helplessly for months as the commodity that was their lifeblood tumbled to prices that had until recently seemed unthinkable. Below $50 a barrel, then below $40, then below $30. But inside the central London headquarters of one of the world’s largest oil companies, there was an air of calm. It was January 2016. Bob Dudley had been at the helm of BP Plc for six years. He ought to have had as much reason to panic as anyone in the rest of his industry. The unflashy American had been predicting lower prices for months. He was being proved right, though that was hardly a reason to celebrate.
Unlike most of his peers, Dudley was no passive observer. At the heart of BP, far removed from the sprawling network of oil fields, refineries, and service stations that the company is known for, sits a vast trading unit, combining the logistical prowess of an air traffic control center with the master-of-the-universe swagger of a macro hedge fund. And, unknown to all but a few company insiders, BP’s traders had spotted, in the teeth of the oil price collapse, an opportunity.
Over the course of 2015, Dudley had acquired a reputation as the oil industry’s Cassandra. Oil prices had been under pressure ever since Saudi Arabia launched a price war against U.S. shale producers a year earlier. When crude prices started falling, he confidently predicted they would remain “lower for longer.” A few months later, he went further. Oil prices, he said, were due to stay “lower for even longer.”
On Jan. 20, 2016, the price of Brent crude oil plunged to $27.10 a barrel, the lowest in more than a decade. It was a nadir that would be reached again only in March 2020, when the Saudis launched another price war, this time targeting Russia, just as the coronavirus pandemic sapped global demand.
When Dudley arrived in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum on Jan. 21, 2016, the industry was braced for more doom and gloom. Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, the BP chief executive officer made his way through the snowy streets. After one meeting, he was asked—as usual—for his oil forecast by a gaggle of journalists. “Prices will remain low for longer,” he said. This time, though, his by-then-well-known mantra came with a kicker: “But not forever.”
Few understood the special significance of his comment. After months of slumping oil prices, BP’s traders had turned bullish. And, in complete secrecy, the company was putting money behind its conviction.
Shortly before flying to Davos, Dudley had authorized a daring trade: BP would place a large bet on a rebound in oil prices. Although its stock is in the FTSE 100 index and owned by almost every British pension fund, this wager, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has remained a closely guarded secret until now.
BP was already heavily exposed to the price of oil. What the traders wanted to do was double down, to increase the exposure by buying futures contracts much as a hedge fund would. BP’s trading arm—staffed by about 3,000 people on its main trading floors in London, Chicago, Houston, and Singapore—argued that the price had fallen so far that it could only go up. And Dudley agreed.
Quietly, BP bought Brent crude futures traded in London. It was a “management position”—a trade so large it couldn’t be the responsibility of any one trader and had to be overseen by the company’s most senior executives.