EC Brent Versus WTI Crude

Crude oil is the most abundant and most traded commodity in the world, and it is one of the first places market participants look when seeking commodity exposure. Crude oil prices are also closely watched as investors try to glean clues about global economic growth; even after the collapse of oil prices in 2014, the commodity remains a bellwether for economic activity and market sentiment.

However, it is important to distinguish between the two most commonly traded contracts of crude oil in the markets: Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). Brent refers to oil that is produced in the Brent oil fields and other sites in the North Sea. Brent is the benchmark for African, European, and Middle Eastern crude oil and is often considered the benchmark targeted by OPEC. WTI crude is sourced from the U.S. and is seen as the benchmark in the Western Hemisphere. Both are light, sweet crude oils, although WTI is generally sweeter and lighter than its European counterpart.

Exhibit 1 shows the performance of the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Oil versus the S&P GSCI Crude Oil (the measure for WTI) over the past five years. Since the lows in early 2016, the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Oil overtook the S&P GSCI Crude Oil and the spread between the two total returns steadily moved higher.

As the American shale revolution has taken hold, cheaper production has led to lower breakeven costs for U.S. producers of WTI crude oil. In 2019, daily U.S. crude production surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia to rank the country as the world’s largest oil producer. This helped to keep a lid on WTI prices.

Combining to account for about a third of world oil consumption, China and the U.S. are the world’s largest importing countries. The start of the U.S.-China trade war in the summer of 2018 caused large oscillations in the spread between the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Oil and the S&P GSCI Crude Oil (see Exhibit 2). The trade war coincided with sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and a change in OPEC production targets.

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