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Spread between WTI and Brent vanishes, lower relative U.S. oil prices

Ingrid Pan, Sr Energy Analyst

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

The spread between West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude represents the difference between two different crude benchmarks. WTI more represents the price that U.S. oil producers receive, and Brent more represents the prices received internationally. The two crudes are of similar quality, and theoretically should be priced very close to each other. However, the prices 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 graph above shows the WTI-Brent spread over the past few years. Note that when the spread moves wider, crude producers based in the United States receive relatively less money for their oil production compared to their counterparts that are producing internationally (generally speaking).

Sharp tightening of spread throughout 2013

The WTI-Brent spread continued to trade narrower last week, moving slightly, from $4.50 per barrel to $2.86 per barrel. In early February, WTI traded at points as much as ~$23 per barrel below Brent crude, but the spread has steadily narrowed since then to trade at current levels of around ~$3 per barrel. The significant tightening of the spread since February has been positive for domestic oil producers (relative to international producers), as it means that the discount they receive to international crudes has been decreasing.

The spread has narrowed due to several factors. Firstly, increased midstream infrastructure has come online that has facilitated 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 Oklahoma crude hub Cushing to the Gulf Coast, where a great amount of refining capacity sits. Additionally, 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 producers to transport inland domestic crude more efficiently to refiners on the East and West coasts, which has also backed out Brent-like imports.

When the spread was trading at its widest point, most market participants thought it would close in over the medium term. However, given that the spread now trades at roughly ~$3 per barrel, some feel the spread may remain where it is or widen back out from here. For example, the EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) notes in its monthly report titled “Short Term Energy Outlook” that it expects the spread to average $10.03 per barrel in 2013. Year-to-date, the spread has averaged ~$13.00 per barrel—and roughly 53% of the year has elapsed, which implies for the rest of the year, the spread will average ~$6.75 per barrel and will therefore widen from current levels.

Lower U.S. oil prices relative to international prices

Again, the effect of a wide spread means that companies with oil production concentrated in the United States will realize lower prices compared to their international counterparts. See the table below for a comparison of oil prices realized by U.S.-concentrated companies versus companies with a global production profile.

1Q13 Average Price Per Barrel
West Texas Intermediate $94.36
Brent $112.64
1Q13 Realized Oil Prices Per Barrel (excluding hedge gains/losses)
Chesapeake Energy (CHK) $95.23
Concho Resources (CXO) $82.49
Range Resources (RRC) $85.46
Oasis Petroleum (OAS) $93.33
Total Corp. (TOT) $106.70
ConocoPhillips (COP) $105.97


Why should investors monitor the spread?

Investors may want to monitor the spread because 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 the companies mentioned in the above table (CHK, CXO, RRC, OAS) to realize lower oil prices compared to international producers, though over the medium term, the spread has closed dramatically and signals better takeaway capacity for inland U.S. oil. Investors should note that many international names can be found in the XLE ETF (Energy Select Sector SPDR), an exchange-traded fund whose holdings are primarily large-cap energy stocks with significant international exposure.

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