Dawn was still hours away when the Essex Boys crept out of bed and fired up their banks of computers. With their high-powered machines, they could speculate at lightning speed on the lucrative commodities markets 3,500 miles away in New York.
And in the bare-knuckle trading pits where their mentor, Paul ‘Cuddles’ Commins, had learned the ropes, there is an old adage: snoozers are losers.
On this, of all days, it was never more apt.
A group of Essex traders on April 20 made more than £400 million in profit on an audacious trade betting on the collapse of the oil price
Paul Commins, pictured, orchestrated the audacious deal which made the Essex traders rich
As they well knew, it was a day when tens of millions could be lost on the oil market — yet for the slickest and most courageous operators, vast profits might equally be made.
The date was April 20 this year and as the pandemic took its grip, paralysing industry, emptying towns and cities, grounding planes and imprisoning 2.6 billion people (a third of the world’s population) in lockdown, the price of crude oil was spiralling downwards at a dizzying rate.
Although it continued to gush from the wells, demand had all but dried up. Worse, there was insufficient capacity to store it in the huge depots of Oklahoma.
So as panic set in on that fateful spring day, the cost of a barrel in U.S. dollars plunged from an already-low $18 to $10 . . . then $5 . . . until, at 7.08pm UK time, it ceased to have any worth at all.
Indeed, as it costs money to store unwanted oil, for a few surreal hours the price of crude went into the negative for the first time in the oil market’s 137-year history. Its closing ‘value’ was minus $37.63 (minus £28 at today’s exchange rates): the amount the seller would have to pay the buyer to take it off their hands.
In a few hours, billions had been lost. Some traders were completely wiped out. The financial carnage reached all corners of the globe.
Not, though, the quiet, wealthy portion of Essex near Epping Forest where Cuddles Commins and his friends plied their trade.
Living up to their reputation for having ‘balls of steel’, the Essex Boys had embarked on a daring strategy to make money from the oil market’s cataclysmic collapse.
Among those who were involved in the scheme was Elliot Pickering, pictured
Their plan involved simultaneously buying and selling vast quantities of the black stuff, and gambling on its future price.
This ploy worked to devastating effect. By the close of trading on April 20, the nine traders — including two who are still in their 20s and another who had previously worked as a trolley attendant in a supermarket car park — had walked away with a £491 million profit.
They had pulled off one of the most audacious and lucrative coups in trading history. It was a feat to rival that of the legendary George Soros, who made a reputed billion-dollar killing by betting against the pound as Britain withdrew from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992.
They had achieved this inside a few frenetic hours without even leaving their homes.
Some of them might have been tempted to shout their astonishing success from the rooftops. After all, they were already extremely wealthy by most people’s standards and not exactly unostentatious.
They live in large houses with all mod cons, drive flashy ‘motors’, holiday in Marbella, spend their weekends golfing and watching West Ham FC, and frequent the same glitzy bar as the cast of reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex.
With commendable modesty, though, Commins and his pals kept shtum about their masterstroke and for many months it remained the stuff of chatroom rumours among fellow traders.
According to the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek, which broke the story this month, when one of the Essex Boys was phoned for comment on the £491 million killing, he joked that he had to go because ‘the mobile reception is breaking up on my yacht’.
It was a cheeky quip that might have been cracked by one of TOWIE’s diamond geezers. But there is a less amusing side to this extraordinary saga.
Smarting from the loss of $92,000 (£68,000) on the day oil prices plunged below zero, a California-based coin-dealing company has now filed a lawsuit against Vega Capital London Ltd, the minnow company through which Commins and his colleagues were affiliated.
It accuses them of making their fortune by manipulating the market to their advantage. As this is a so-called ‘class action’, the complainants can represent other parties who might allege a similar grievance.
A former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor says this accusation could prompt criminal charges, the maximum penalty for which is ten years in prison, plus millions of dollars in fines and a trading ban. Vega Capital’s U.S. lawyers have asked a judge to throw out the case, saying that it is utterly without merit.
Meanwhile, the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York has reportedly also started an investigation to determine whether, in his opinion, the traders committed a felony. Senator Sherrod Brown, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, has asked the U.S. futures market regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to examine Vega’s trading activity, saying it created ‘the impression of a market susceptible to manipulation’. Vega Capital has not been accused of doing anything illegal.
This week, leading London lawyers Simkins, who act for Mr Commins and the other traders, strenuously denied any malpractice.
‘Each of our clients regularly puts his own money at risk to try to make a profit,’ a spokesman told the Mail. ‘Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
‘On April 20, blaring market signals — including the [trading] exchange’s repeated warnings that prices could go negative — led market participants ranging from small proprietary traders to large financial institutions to trade on the assumption that prices would drop.
‘While no one could predict just how far prices would drop, each of our clients, like so many others around the world, traded on his own views of the market. They strongly deny any wrongdoing and don’t intend to comment on speculation about their profits.’
A robust and indignant response. And for the London trading community — who sense that some of the accusations flying across the pond are born of envy, along with humiliation that a band of little-known Brits could trounce the sharp-fanged wolves of Wall Street — one that is wholly justified.
‘If it was BP or Goldman Sachs that made that money, no one would bat an eyelid. But when it’s a bunch of working-class lads, people say they’re cheating,’ one trader who knows the group told Bloomberg. ‘I say good luck to them.’
If the City’s watering-holes were open, many would drink to that. For in a pandemic, as in a war, those with the sharpest wits and steadiest nerve make money.
So what do we know of the men who saw beyond the chaos last April, and how did they turn a catastrophe to such advantage?
Visitors to Paul Commins’s family home these days would doubtless be impressed.
Recently valued at £3.65 million, the three-storey pile in an affluent Essex village has a swimming pool, home gym and walk-in wardrobe. On the driveway stand a 2020-registered Porsche and two gleaming Range Rovers.
The father of three acquired these totems before he waltzed away with £22.5 million — his comparatively modest share of the Vega oil-trade spoils. But given that he elbowed his way to the top of his parlous game by working exhausting hours and using his rapier wits, it would be churlish to begrudge him the trappings.
If this story is made into a film — perhaps directed by Guy Ritchie, king of the Cockney wide-boy genre — Commins would best be portrayed by Ray Winstone.
He cut his trading teeth in the manic ‘pits’ of London’s International Petroleum Exchange, where 400 garishly blazered hustlers betted on the price of oil and gas at breakneck speed, rising to become one of the ‘locals’ who sported crimson jackets and gambled with their own money.
Colleagues ribbed him for his Jonathan Ross-like manner of speech, which prevents him pronouncing his Rs. Yet he took it in good part. His pit identity badge even bore the letters FWE, which was how he pronounced ‘three’.
With fast bucks to be made and raucous camaraderie, it was a lifestyle he relished. But when the pits closed 15 years ago, Commins, then 36, started his own ‘prop shop’ — a place where traders work together, but independently, under the same roof.
In doing so, he joined forces with Chris ‘Dog’ Roase, 46, another seasoned trader, who reportedly made £67 million on April 20.
Among the assorted veterans and rookies who sat alongside them, swapping market talk and salty banter, there were some very unlikely tycoons.
Many were the offspring of Commins’s friends and fellow traders. They included Elliot Pickering, now 25. Described as a ‘skinny, awkward-looking kid who still lived with his mum’, he had nevertheless done well enough by the age of 17 to drive a convertible Rolls-Royce with personalised number plates.
Old photographs posted on social media by his father, Paul, show the ‘Roller’ standing outside a stately home.
In messages accompanying the picture, friends congratulate Mr Pickering on his ownership of the property and one says: ‘Elliot will be able to buy the house soon!’
The reply to this prediction was succinct: ‘Like father like son.’ And it has proved to be accurate, for Elliot Pickering was one of the biggest winners in April, banking £75 million.
Then there was Aristos ‘Ari’ Demetriou, 31, who also scooped £75 million. Legend has it that he got his break when he spied Dog’s impressive car while working in the supermarket car park and asked him how he could afford it.
Ditching his high-viz jacket to work the trading terminals, Ari was evidently a natural. In 2014, when he was about 25, he was already earning enough to buy a four-acre plot near his new friends’ mansions in rural Essex. He demolished the property that stood there and built his dream home.
Three years ago, when he staged his lavish marriage ceremony at Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair, his extraordinary rise was complete.
Another who scooped £75 million last spring was Connor Younger, then aged just 22. A building contractor’s son, he had spent his teens listening to rap music and chasing desirable girls before turning his attentions to trading.
Finally, we should mention Paul Commins’s 20-year-old son, George. Having presumably learnt to trade at his father’s knee, he made one of the smaller profits last April — a paltry £6 million.
These associates were first known as Tower Trading Group but in 2016, when two senior figures, Adrian ‘Britney’ Spires and Tommy Gaunt, left to start their own prop shop, Commins and about 20 others joined them.
Together they started Vega Capital, whose dowdy offices are registered to a business park in West Horndon, Essex.
Before the pandemic, they might have been working from these premises when their trading session commenced in the early hours of April 20.
Instead, they were marooned in their homes — but this was no great hardship. Traders’ houses are routinely equipped with multiple screens, specialist keyboards and even microphones and speakers so they can communicate with one another in real time while remaining at the keyboard.
They were trading, on the New York Mercantile Exchange, in West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures, the instrument most frequently used to buy and sell crude oil.
The price of crude is always settled in advance on, or about, the 20th of each month and holds good for the next four weeks. And as it had been plummeting in tandem with the pandemic’s devastation of the global economy, all the signs were that it would end the day at a record low.
As was their right, the Essex Boys were — like dealers around the world — intent on cashing in on this unprecedented freefall.
They had agreed to buy a certain amount of oil when the price ‘settled’, as it always does, at 2.30pm each day. But as well as buying contracts for oil, they were also selling the same amount of oil.
And because they had agreed to buy at whatever the closing price was, the more it dropped into the negative, the more they were effectively ‘paid’ for their purchases.
The key to the strategy was that they sold as much as they bought, so no oil actually went anywhere.
That was how ‘Cuddles’ and his cohort pulled off their coup.
Some would argue that they have done the U.S. regulators a service. For, albeit unwittingly, their trading bonanza may have exposed a fundamental flaw in the global oil market.
Contracts for other types of oil, such as Brent crude, can be settled in cash when they expire at the end of the month. But anyone with an expiring WTI oil contract must physically take possession of the barrels.
The only place in the world where WTI oil is allowed to be stored is in Cushing, a dusty backwater town in Oklahoma, surrounded on all sides by dozens of circular white tanks. And while Cushing has capacity for 90 million barrels, during the lockdown in April it was running out of space — driving the price down further.
Having to pay to store the oil — with nowhere to put it — created a negative worth for the commodity, which sets benchmark prices within the $3 trillion-a-year oil and gas industry.
Small wonder, then, that those in oil, from frenzied New York traders to Saudi Arabian billionaires, were spooked that day.
Perhaps this explains why the American authorities are examining what happened when prices plummeted so assiduously.
Under U.S trading regulations, what the Essex Boys did was all perfectly above board — provided they did not deliberately set about pushing the oil price down to boost their profits.
Whether they did that is a question those authorities will doubtless investigate with their customary rigor.
Meanwhile, in their mansions, the Essex Boys will be enjoying a particularly merry festive season, even with the Covid crisis.
And perhaps planning a beano in Marbella when the pandemic that generated their £491 million fortune finally subsides.