Analysis: Why the WTI-Brent oil spread closed in sharply



WTI and Brent used to trade in line, but prices had diverged over the past few years

The spread between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude represents the difference between two crude benchmarks, with WTI more representing the price U.S. oil producers receive and Brent more representing the prices received internationally. The two crudes are of similar quality and theoretically should price very closely to each other. However, prices had differed greatly between the two crudes because a recent surge in production in the United States has caused a buildup of crude oil inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma, where WTI is priced. This created a supply and demand imbalance at the hub, causing WTI to trade lower than Brent. Before this increase in U.S. oil production, the two crudes had historically traded in line with each other.

2013.12.09 - WTI-Brent LT

The above graph shows the WTI-Brent spread over the past few years. Note that when the spread moves wider, it generally means that crude producers based in the United States receive relatively less money for their oil production compared to their counterparts that are producing internationally.

The spread moved sharply narrower last week on the imminent start of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline

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The WTI-Brent spread moved narrower last week, from $16.97 per barrel to $13.96 per barrel, and is now trading around $11 per barrel. The spread closed in due to several factors. Firstly, last week, Transcanada Corp. (TRP) announced that it would begin operating the southern portion of its Keystone XL pipeline in January. The pipeline will transport crude oil from Cushing, Oklahoma (where WTI crude oil is priced) to the Gulf Coast, where much U.S. refining capacity is located. The market saw this as a positive for WTI crude prices, as it implies increased ability to get U.S. inland crude out of the region to end markets. Plus, a large decrease in U.S. crude inventories helped to push up WTI crude prices (see Must-know: Why a larger oil inventory draw helped boost oil prices for more background). There’s also speculation that Libyan crude oil production will increase soon, as a Libyan security official noted that three oil ports will reopen on December 15. An increase in Libyan crude could push down Brent prices relative to WTI, as oil from Libya more closely correlates to the international benchmark of Brent crude.

Prior to this past week, the domestic benchmark of WTI had been depressed relative to Brent, as U.S. oil production continued to surge. In the past few months, the spread had been moving wider again, as data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration has posted several reports showing that domestic crude inventory stocks had risen more than anticipated. Maintenance on refineries could have hampered crude demand from the Cushing hub, though note that maintenance is a temporary event.

Background: The WTI-Brent spread over 2013

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WTI had been trading as low as $23 per barrel under Brent in February of 2013. Over the course of the year, the spread narrowed due to several factors. Firstly, increased midstream infrastructure has come online, facilitating the movement of crude from inland to refiners on the coast. One notable example is the expansion of the Seaway Pipeline in January 2013, which allows more crude to flow from the Oklahoma crude hub at Cushing to the Gulf Coast, where a great amount of refining capacity sits. Also, Sunoco’s Permian Express Pipeline and the reversal of Magellan Midstream Partners’ Longhorn Pipeline are allowing more crude from the Permian Basin in West Texas to flow directly to the Gulf Coast. Increased pipeline capacity and crude transportation by rail have allowed inland domestic crude to more efficiently travel to refiners on the East and West coasts, which has also backed out Brent-like imports.

U.S. refineries began running at higher rates earlier in the year, which caused increased demand for crude. Since spring 2013, many U.S. refineries started to come back online from performing routine maintenance, and the EIA reported that in July, domestic refineries were running crude through their facilities at a rate of ~16.3 million barrels per day through June 2013. This is a ~2.1-million-barrel-a-day increase over the first week of March. Plus, new refining capacity opened up in the Gulf Coast, helping increase refiners’ demand for crude.

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So the spread between WTI and Brent closed in through the year until the two crudes traded nearly at par in mid-July. Since then, the spread gradually widened to levels as wide as ~$19 per barrel in late November, before closing in to current levels of ~$12 per barrel. In late August and early September, the spread widened to nearly $8 per barrel. This was partly because supply from Libya had dropped sharply due to unrest. Also, the escalation of tensions in Syria had caused traders to take bullish bets on the international oil benchmark of Brent crude and has also possibly driven the price differential between WTI and Brent. Since then, fears about Syria eased somewhat and production from Libya started to recover, so that spreads closed in again to ~$3 per barrel in mid-September.

After that, data continued to show growing U.S. crude production—particularly from areas like the Bakken in North Dakota and the Permian in West Texas. Accompanying the crude production growth were increasing stocks of crude inventories, particularly at Cushing, a major crude hub in Oklahoma. Cushing inventories have risen for seven weeks straight, after several months of steep declines. This is a signal that inland crude production flowing into Cushing may be starting to overtake the existing takeaway capacity, which would depress WTI crude oil prices compared to Brent prices.

The future of the Brent-WTI spread

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As we’ve seen, WTI and Brent had historically traded at near par and reached near par at points earlier this year. However, given the structural change of significantly more oil being produced in the U.S. (with projections of continued future growth), many market participants expect WTI to continue to trade under Brent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, for example, notes in its monthly report titled “Short Term Energy Outlook” that it expects a spread of ~$8 per barrel in 2014 (recently increased from $6 per barrel).

The EIA also noted in an article in June, “The future of the Brent-WTI price spread will be determined, in part, by the balance between future growth in U.S. crude production and the capacity of crude oil infrastructure to move that crude to U.S. refiners.” For example, since Transcanada’s recent news to start up the Keystone XL pipeline, the spread has tightened.

The spread’s effect on oil companies

When WTI trades below Brent, companies with oil production concentrated in the United States will generally realize lower prices compared to their international counterparts, as WTI is the de facto U.S. benchmark and Brent is the international benchmark.

For example, see the table below for a comparison of oil prices realized by U.S.-concentrated companies versus companies with a global production profile.

3Q13 Average Price Per Barrel
West Texas Intermediate $109.65
Brent $102.44
3Q13 Realized Oil Prices Per Barrel (excluding hedge gains/losses)
Chesapeake Energy (CHK) $101.08
Concho Resources (CXO) $102.10
Range Resources (RRC) $91.82
Oasis Petroleum (OAS) $100.75
Total Corp. (TOT) $107.20
ConocoPhillips (COP) $106.60

From an investment point of view, if Brent is expected to continue to trade significantly above WTI, investors might favor buying oil names that receive crude prices closer to the Brent benchmark than the WTI benchmark. Generally, this would represent oil names with more international production relative to domestic (U.S.) production.

Investors may want to monitor the spread, as a wider spread may make international producers more attractive relative to domestic producers. The difference between Brent and WTI has caused domestic producers like those mentioned in the above table (CHK, CXO, RRC, and OAS) to realize lower prices on oil compared to international producers. But over the medium term, the spread has closed dramatically and now signals better takeaway capacity for inland U.S. oil. Investors should note that many international names are in the XLE ETF (SPDR Energy Select Sector), an ETF whose holdings are primarily large-cap energy stocks with significant international exposure. In comparison, the XOP ETF (SPDR Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF) is weighted towards domestic-only names.


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