Streetwise Professor

February 20, 2017

Trolling Brent

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:14 am

Platts has announced the first major change in the Brent crude assessment process in a decade, adding Troll crude to the “Brent” stream:

A decline in supply from North Sea fields has led to concerns that physical volumes could become too thin and hence at times could be accumulated in the hands of just a few players, making the benchmark vulnerable to manipulation.

Platts said on Monday it would add Norway’s Troll crude to the four British and Norwegian crudes it already uses to assess dated Brent from Jan 1. 2018. This will join Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk, or BFOE as they are known.

This is likely a stopgap measure, and Platts is considering more radical moves in the future:

It is also investigating a more radical plan to account for a possible larger drop-off in North Sea output over the next decade that would allow oil delivered from as far afield as west Africa and Central Asia to contribute to setting North Sea prices.

But the move is controversial, as this from the FT article shows:

If this is not addressed first, one source at a big North Sea trader said, the introduction of another grade to BFOE could make “an assessment that is unhedgeable, hence not fit for purpose”. “We don’t see any urgency to add grades today,” he added. Changes to Brent shifts the balance of power in North Sea trading. The addition of Troll makes Statoil the biggest contributor of supplies to the grades supporting Brent, overtaking Shell. Some big North Sea traders had expressed concern Statoil would have an advantage in understanding the balance of supply and demand in the region as it sends a large amount of Troll crude to its Mongstad refinery, Norway’s largest.

The statement about “an assessment that is unhedgeable, hence not fit for purpose” is BS, and exactly the kind of thing one always hears when contracts are redesigned. The fact is that contract redesigns have distributive effects, even if they improve a contract’s functioning, and the losers always whinge. Part of the distributive effect relates to issues like giving a company like Statoil an edge . . . that previously Shell and the other big North Sea producers had. But part of the distributive effect is that a contract with inadequate deliverable supply is a playground for big traders, who can more easily corner, squeeze, and hug such a contract.

Insofar as hedging is concerned, the main issue is how well the Brent contract performs as a hedge (and a pricing benchmark) for out-of-position (i.e., non-North Sea) crude, which represents the main use of Brent paper trades. Reducing deliverable supply constraints which contribute to pricing anomalies (and notably, anomalous moves in the basis) unambiguously improves the functioning of the contract for out-of-position players. Yeah, those hedging BFOE get slightly worse hedging performance, but that is a trivial consideration given that the very reason for changing the benchmark is the decline in BFOE production–which now represents less than 1 percent of world output. Why should the hair on the end of the tail wag the dog?

Insofar as the competition with WTI is concerned, the combination of larger US supplies, the construction of pipelines to move supplies from the Midcon (PADDII) to the Gulf (PADDIII)  and the lifting of the export ban have restored and in fact strengthened the connection of WTI prices to seaborne crude prices. US barrels are now going to both Europe and Asia, and US crude has effectively become the marginal barrel in most major markets, meaning that it is determining price and that WTI is an effective hedge (especially for the lighter grades). And by the way, the WTI delivery mechanism is much more robust and transparent than the baroque (and at times broken) Brent pricing mechanism.

As if to add an exclamation point to the story, Bloomberg reports that in recent months Shell has been bigfooting–or would that be trolling?–the market with big trades that have arguably distorted spreads. It got to the point that even firms like Vitol (which are notoriously loath to call foul, lest someone point fingers at them) raised the issue with Shell:

While none of those interviewed said Shell did anything illegal, they said the company violated the unspoken rules governing the market, which is lightly regulated. Executives of several trading rivals, including Vitol Group BV, the world’s top independent oil merchant, raised objections with counterparts at Shell last year, according to market participants.

What are the odds that Mr. Fit for Purpose is a Shell trader?

All of this is as I predicted, almost six years ago, when everyone was shoveling dirt on WTI and declaring Brent the Benchmark of the Forever Future:

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.  But the Brent contract will be an inverted paper pyramid, resting on a thinner and thinner point of crude production.  There will be gains from trade–large ones–from redesigning the contract, but the difficulties of negotiating an agreement among numerous big players will prove nigh on to impossible to surmount.  Moreover, there will be no single regulator in a single jurisdiction that can bang heads together (for yes, that is needed sometimes) and cajole the parties toward agreement.

So Brent boosters, enjoy your laugh while it lasts.  It won’t last long, and remember, he who laughs last laughs best.

That’s exactly how things have worked out, even down to the point about the difficulties of getting the big boys to play together (a lesson gained through extensive personal experience, some of which is detailed in the post). Just call me Craignac the Magnificent. At least when it comes to commodity contract design 😉

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  1. Hi Prof,

    Does this work the same way for WTI as well? That is, does all of the content in assessed WTI crude actually come from West Texas or has it been expanded to include other regions in the U.S.?



    Comment by Abe Froman — February 20, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

  2. @Abe-Several streams of domestic crude are eligible, including WTI, New Mexico Sweet, Low Sweet Mix, North Texas Sweet, Oklahoma Sweet, and South Texas Sweet. All of these crudes meet the sulfur, viscosity, gravity, and pour point requirements in the contract. Although this is now pretty much a dead letter (given the abundance light sweet crude in the Midcon right now, which would make bringing imported light crude there akin to carrying coals to Newcastle), several foreign crudes are deliverable. These include Brent, Qua Iboe, Bonnie Light, Oseberg, and Cusiana. It probably isn’t even logistically feasible to deliver these crudes now (it’s definitely not economically feasible) due to the reversal of Seaway (which was the main way these foreign crudes could have made it to Cushing before the shale boom).

    The big difference is that WTI calls for delivery in store in 1000 barrel lots, whereas Brent is based on an assessment system and EFPs involving cargoes of hundreds of thousands of barrels. Platts and ICE may create a delivery option in store Rotterdam, which would actually make a lot of sense and IMO lead to a more transparent and flexible pricing mechanism. Which is precisely why the Shells of the world are less than enthusiastic.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 20, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

  3. Good job, Craignac.

    Comment by Krzys — February 20, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

  4. Dearr Prof.,

    Ad your point about the delivery in store Rotterdam, I agree that it would make sense, in fact it has made sense for a long time. It has been tried several times since the 1970s, without success. I agree that contributing that failure to opposition by Shell (and BP?) is plausible. In your opinion would that change if Statoil became the biggest supplier to the Brent basket? Or to put it differently, what would be required to realise a Rotterdam delivery option?


    Comment by Marten Boon — February 21, 2017 @ 10:38 am

  5. Prof,

    What happens to the spread between WTI and Brent as a result of this new assessment?

    Comment by Peter Hawley — March 30, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

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