Understanding the Crude Oil Market

Pricing Differentials Between Brent Crude and WTI

A photograph of working inland oil pump (oil donkey, nodding donkey) in the oil fields of West Texas, USA. Taken on a typical sunny day with blue skies.
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Marc Rich, one of the most influential and controversial commodity traders of all time, once referred to oil as the blood that flows through the veins of the world. Crude oil is a fundamental source of energy for the world’s economy. Besides being one of the most actively traded commodities, the price of crude oil is extremely sensitive to geopolitical and weather events.

The world crude oil market is all about investor anticipation of supply and demand, and oil prices are very volatile and highly influenced by consumer and investor sentiment. As such, global events like the COVID-19 pandemic can send shockwaves throughout the market.  

Key Takeaways

  • Crude oil is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world and a major source of the global energy supply.
  • Brent North Sea crude and West Texas Intermediate crude are the two most heavily traded crude oil grades in the world.
  • Both Brent and WTI crude serve as pricing benchmarks for major portions of the global oil supply.
  • Crude oil prices are affected by many factors, including weather, geopolitical events, supply-and-demand balance, and more.


The Two Most Prevalent Grades of Crude Oil

When it comes to physical oil, there are different grades. The most heavily traded grades are Brent North Sea crude (commonly known as "Brent crude") and West Texas Intermediate (commonly known as "WTI"). Brent is oil that is produced in the Brent oil fields and other sites in the North Sea.

Brent crude's price is the benchmark for African, European, and Middle Eastern crude oil. The pricing mechanism for Brent dictates the value of roughly two-thirds of the world's crude oil production.

The percentage of sulfur in crude oil determines the amount of processing needed to refine the oil into energy products. "Sweet crude" is a term that refers to crude oil that has less than 1% sulfur.

The sulfur content of both Brent and WTI is well under 1%, making them both “sweet.” These types are also less dense (“lighter”) than many of the crude oils extracted elsewhere. Both of these characteristics make them easier to refine and more attractive to petroleum product producers.

Benchmarks and Trading Markets

WTI is the benchmark crude for North America. 

The NYMEX (New York Mercantile Exchange) division of the CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) lists futures contracts of WTI crude oil. Delivery for WTI crude futures occurs in Cushing, Oklahoma.

Brent crude oil futures trade on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). Brent crude is traded internationally, so the delivery locations will vary by country.

Since both types of oil are used as benchmarks, different countries will use them in different manners. Asian countries tend to use a mixture of Brent and WTI benchmark prices to value their crude oil.

Factors That Affect Benchmark Pricing

Brent and WTI crude have different properties, which result in a price differential called a "quality spread." They are also located in different parts of the world (Brent in Europe, and WTI in North America). This is referred to as a "location spread."

The nominal price of crude oil is just one factor involved in understanding the crude oil market

According to CME Group, which runs the NYMEX commodities market, the WTI/Brent Spread is influenced by four key factors:

  • U.S. crude oil production levels
  • Crude oil supply-and-demand balance in the U.S.
  • North Sea crude oil operations
  • Geopolitical issues in the international crude oil market

How World Events Can Affect Crude Oil Prices

Political shifts, weather events, and global health crises have been some of the biggest shock factors in the oil market.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the International Energy Agency cut its forecast for global oil demand in March 2020, predicting the first year-over-year decline in demand since 2009. The IEA predicted in its February 2021 report that demand would recover 60% of its 2020 losses over the course of the year.

To understand how world events can cause the spread between Brent and WTI to move dramatically for long periods, look back a few years. At the start of 2011, the Brent-WTI spread was close to flat.

The spread widened during 2011, with Brent trading at a premium compared to WTI. Around the time that the Arab Spring (an uprising across much of the Arabic region) began in Egypt in February of 2011, the spread widened.

Fears concerning the closure of the Suez Canal and a lack of available supply caused Brent crude oil to become more expensive than WTI. As tensions eased over the canal's operation, the spread reduced.

Then, in late 2011, the Iranian government threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which approximately 20% of the world's oil flows. Once again, the spread widened, as Brent soared to a $25 premium per barrel higher than WTI.

In 2015, a premium drop for Brent occurred for two reasons. First, an agreement with Iran was struck, allowing the country to export more oil, which should have increased the amount of Iranian crude flowing into the market on a daily basis. Since Brent is the pricing benchmark for Iranian crude, this development depressed the price of Brent at the time.

Second, U.S. rig counts dropped at about the same time. With expanding support for exporting U.S. crude abroad, that meant less drilling in the future and less U.S. production on a daily basis. Therefore, Brent prices moved lower by virtue of hints of more Iranian crude, and WTI strengthened because of less U.S. production and increasing exports. It is important to notice that mere anticipation of an influx of oil into the market was enough to cause price fluctuations.

Weather, too, can have drastic effects on prices. In 2005, hurricanes led to sharp rises in oil prices, as refineries and production facilities shut down for the duration of the weather events.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is ICE Brent Crude?

ICE Brent Crude is a specific futures contract offered by Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). Each contract is worth 1,000 barrels of Brent crude oil. It is traded in U.S. dollars, and it trades on exchanges in New York, London, and Singapore.

Where is Brent crude oil refined?

Brent crude is refined all over the world by the refineries that purchase the barrels of crude oil. However, since it is drilled in Northwest Europe, most of the oil is refined nearby in that region.

How much gasoline is produced by one barrel of crude oil?

Oil refining in the U.S. typically produces up to 20 gallons of standard automobile gasoline and up to 12 gallons of diesel fuel (or "heating oil") per barrel. Each barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil.

What is WTI Cushing spot?

West Texas Light Sweet Crude oil contracts deliver in Cushing, Oklahoma. "Spot price" is another way of referring to the market price for a commodity, so the Cushing spot price is the price at which you can buy or sell a barrel of oil that delivers in Cushing.