WTI’s problems arise from the consequences of too much supply at the delivery point, which is a good problem for a contract to have. The price signals are leading to the kind of response that will eliminate the supply overhang, leaving the WTI contract with prices that are highly interconnected with those of seaborne crude, and with enough deliverable supply to mitigate the potential for squeezes and other technical disruptions.
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Which means that those who are crowing about Brent today, and heaping scorn on WTI, will be begging for WTI’s problems in a few years. For by then, WTI’s issues will be fixed, and it will be sitting astride a robust flow of oil tightly interconnected with the nexus of world oil trading.
In the battle for supremacy between the world’s two largest oil exchanges, one of them is enjoying a turbo charge from the U.S. government.
Traders bought and sold an average of almost 1.1 billion barrels of West Texas Intermediate crude futures each day in 2016, a surge of 35 percent from a year earlier. The scale of the gain was partly because of the U.S. government lifting decades-old export limits last year, pushing barrels all over the world, according to CME Group Inc., whose Nymex exchange handles the contracts. By comparison, ICE Futures Europe’s Brent contract climbed by 13 percent.
WTI and Brent have been the oil industry’s two main futures contracts for decades. In the past, the American grade’s global popularity was restrained by the fact that exports were heavily restricted. Now, record U.S. shipments are heading overseas, meaning WTI’s appeal as a hedging instrument is rising, particularly in Asia, where CME has expanded its footprint.
“You have turbo-charged WTI as a truly waterborne global benchmark,” Derek Sammann global head of commodities and options products at CME Group, said in a phone interview regarding the lifting of the ban. “You’re seeing the global market reach out and use WTI — whether that’s traders in Europe, Asia and the U.S.”
This should surprise no one–but the conventional wisdom had largely written off WTI in 2011. Given that economic price signals were providing a strong incentive to invest in infrastructure to ease the bottleneck between the Midcon and the sea, it was inevitable that WTI would become reconnected with the waterborne market.
Once the physical bottleneck was eased, the only remaining bottleneck was the export ban. But whereas the export ban was costless prior to the shale boom (because it banned something that wasn’t happening anyways), it became very costly when US supply (especially of light, sweet crude) ballooned. As Peltzman, Becker and others pointed out long ago, politicians do take deadweight costs into account. In a situation like the US oil market, which pitted two large and concentrated interests (upstream producers and refiners) against one another, reducing deadweight costs probably made the difference (as the distributive politics were basically a push). Thus, the export ban went the way of the dodo, and the tie between WTI and the seaborne market became all that much tighter.
This all means that it’s not quite right to say that CME’s WTI contract has been “turbocharged by the federal government.” Shale it what has turbocharged everything. The US government just accommodated policy to a new economic reality. It was along for the ride, as are CME and ICE.
ICE’s response was kind of amusing:
“ICE Brent Crude remains the leading global benchmark for oil,” the exchange said in an e-mailed response to questions. “With up to two-thirds of the world’s oil priced off the Brent complex, the Brent crude futures contract is a key hedging mechanism for oil market participants.”
Whatever it takes to get them through the day, I guess. Reading that brought to mind statements that LIFFE made about the loss of market share to Eurex in early-1998.
The fact is that there is hysteresis in the choice of the pricing benchmark. As exiting contracts mature and new contracts are entered, market participants will have an opportunity to revisit their choice of pricing benchmark. With the high volume and liquidity of WTI, and the increasingly tight connection between WTI and world oil flows, more participants will shift to WTI pricing.
Further, as I noted in the 2011 post (and several that preceded it) Brent’s structural problems are far more severe. Brent production is declining, and this decline will likely accelerate in a persistent low oil price environment: not only has shale boosted North American supply, it has contributed to the decline in North Sea supply. Brent’s pricing mechanism is already extremely baroque, and will only become more so as Platts scrambles to find more imaginative ways to tie the contract to new supply sources. It is not hard to imagine that in the medium term Brent will be Brent in name only.
Since WTI will likely rest on a strong and perhaps increasing supply base, Brent’s physical underpinning will become progressively shakier, and more Rube Goldberg-like. These different physical market trajectories will benefit WTI derivatives relative to Brent, and will also induce a shift towards using WTI as a benchmark in physical trades. Meaning that ICE is whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe they are just taking Satchel Paige’s advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” And in ICE Brent’s case, that’s definitely true, and the gap is closing quickly.