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, the 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.
The above graph shows the WTI-Brent spread over the past few years. Note that when the spread moves wider, it generally means crude producers based in the United States receive relatively less money for their oil production compared to their counterparts producing internationally.
The spread continued to move wider last week, following the past few months’ trend
The WTI-Brent spread moved wider again last week, from $16.21 per barrel to $16.97 per barrel. The spread reached as wide as $19 per barrel mid-week. WTI crude oil, the U.S. benchmark, has been under pressure, as U.S. oil production continues to grow and the supply surge is weighing down prices. Meanwhile, Brent—largely viewed as the international benchmark—had price support due to geopolitical events. Tension around nuclear negotiations in Iran have helped support international oil prices, as geopolitical events in the Middle East can have the effect of causing oil prices to trade up. For more on this phenomenon, please see Why could sanctions against Iran affect the global oil markets?
The domestic benchmark of WTI has had downward pressure on price movements, as U.S. oil production remains strong. In recent weeks, the spread has been moving wider again, as data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration has posted several reports showing that domestic crude inventory stocks have risen more than anticipated. Maintenance on refineries could have hampered crude demand from the Cushing hub, though note that maintenance is a temporary event. For more on crude inventories, please see Why crude oil prices continue to slide on inventory figures.
Background: The WTI-Brent spread over 2013
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. Plus, 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 crude demand. 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. Also, new refining capacity opened up in the Gulf Coast, helping increase refiners’ demand for crude.
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 ~$17 per barrel currently. 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. The escalation of tensions in Syria had also caused traders to take bullish bets on the international oil benchmark of Brent crude, and has possibly driven the price differential between WTI and Brent too. 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 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
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 from 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.” One such major piece of infrastructure is expected to come online in the next few weeks. TransCanada Corp., a midstream company, announced that the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline—a 700,000-barrel-per-day pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma, to Nederland, Texas—would be completed in early November, with the line filling shortly afterwards. The completion of the pipeline brings on significant capacity to move crude oil away from Cushing towards seaborne markets and could bring the spread tighter.
The spread’s effect on oil companies
When WTI trades below Brent, this generally means that companies with oil production concentrated in the United States will 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|
|BENCHMARK OIL PRICES|
|West Texas Intermediate||$109.65|
|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|
From an investment point of view, if Brent is expected to continue to trade significantly above WTI, you 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.
Monitor the spread
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 such as 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.