Starting Jan. 1, oceangoing ships will need to burn fuel that contains some 86% less sulfur. The change means that some of the so-called bunker fuel will contain more gasoil — a lighter oil that goes into more-expensive diesel — and less of the gunky “resid,” which is the stuff left over after squeezing all the valuable bits out of crude oil.

On paper, the trade seemed an easy one: buy the lighter, cleaner fuel and, at the same time, sell the heavier, dirtier stuff. But supply of the lower-quality fuel proved less robust and demand far higher than forecast. As a result, the trade has become this year’s “widowmaker,” making and breaking some of the biggest commodities firms around the world.

“Supply and demand balances told you that low sulfur fuel oil was going to be very strong,” said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLC in Houston. “But the perception of when that was going to happen, the timing, was key.”

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