Trading Crude Oil Spreads: WTI and Brent
Thursday, April 22, 2010
by Aaron Fennell of Scotia McLeod
Bookmark and Share
Many investors are interested in profiting from their views on the price of crude oil, but may not have considered that trading price differentials between different products. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent crude oil offer compelling opportunities for traders.
Two main types of crude oil products traded in the marketplace are based on location and grade. The one we normally trade in North America is West Texas Intermediate, the type of oil entering the United States through the Gulf of Mexico. Brent crude oil is the product located in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway, essentially the benchmark for the European market.
WTI has slightly lower sulfur content and is therefore easier to refine to meet emissions requirements in place in most Western countries. Therefore, it demands a higher price. The West Texas Intermediate crude has an average historical premium of $1.40 over Brent. However, we often see the prices go out of alignment; this often has to do with location and transportation bottlenecks. If crude oil is subject to a shortage in one region and there is an excess supply in another, oil will eventually be redirected, depending on the shipping industry’s capacity to move it around. This redistribution can take a few weeks or months, but over the medium-term, the market naturally rebalances. Oil tankers are basically conducting arbitrage as they move their oil around the world. In the meantime, short-term market prices can get out of line.
Many futures traders are familiar with the light sweet crude contract traded at CME Group/NYMEX. However, the ICE Futures exchange offers electronic trading on both the WTI and Brent crude oil on one platform, allowing you to trade spreads on these products. The nice thing about trading both these products on ICE is that is has a pretty sophisticated algorithm for spread trading. You can get both sides filled on one order. Another advantage of trading these oil spreads on one exchange is that the margin requirement on the pair is much lower than trading the individual outright futures contracts. You can utilize more leverage to trade the two pricing points of these markets in a non-directional fashion. You can also monitor freight rates between the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and observe how the differential changes when those rates are high or low. When freight rates are high, you can expect a more volatile price differential.