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January 2, 2013

How Oil Really Gets Priced

Most investors think of oil in terms of spot and futures price. Commodities, by definition, describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but no qualitative differentiation. Silver is silver and it costs what it costs, as do pork bellies, oranges, peanuts and gold. Of course, the reality is a little more complex…

How Oil Really Gets Priced

Most investors think of oil in terms of spot and futures price. Commodities, by definition, describe a class of goods for which there is demand, but no qualitative differentiation. Silver is silver and it costs what it costs, as do pork bellies, oranges, peanuts and gold. Of course, the reality is a little more complex than that.

And when it comes to the price of oil? It’s a lot more complex than that.

Big Oil

When you hear the words “Big Oil,” companies like Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Chevron usually come to mind. But everything about oil is big. The value of annual crude oil production is double that of natural gas and coal, 4.5x that of rice, wheat, and corn put together, and 23x that of gold.

In its natural state, oil is one of the most diverse products on the planet. More than 300 different types of crude are produced around the world. In terms of price, the two most important characteristics are viscosity and sulfur content. The highest-value fractions of oil – gasoline, diesel and jet fuel – are most cost-effectively derived from the low density (“light”) and low sulfur content (“sweet”) crude, and are usually more expensive than their heavy and sour counterparts, as sulfur is a harmful pollutant that must be extracted.


There is no single benchmark of oil, and therefore, no one price for any barrel of oil. Instead, oil is priced via a method known as “formula pricing.” Formula pricing works by first assigning a benchmark price – such as Brent or West Texas Intermediate (WTI) – to a contracted amount of oil, then adding or subtracting a number of assorted price differentials according to a checklist of criteria ranging from quality and transportation costs, to things like refining costs. For example, a barrel of light, sweet WTI is usually worth more than a barrel of sour Dubai Crude. However, the actual spread in price depends upon the supply and demand dynamics of the oil market at the time, as well as the location, the spare capacity of the refineries, and whether the refineries are capable of processing lower quality oil into higher quality petroleum products.

Oil companies often reference more than one benchmark price depending on the destination. In addition, the methods used to calculate WTI and Brent prices are different.

Pricing WTI

The pricing for West Texas Intermediate crude is refreshingly simple when compared to Brent. WTI is priced using a single instrument: the NYMEX Light Sweet Oil futures contract.

The WTI futures contract allows for physical delivery when left open at expiry, specifying 1,000 barrels of WTI to be delivered to Cushing, Oklahoma – although it also allows for the delivery of several other domestic and foreign light sweet crudes against the futures contract. However, only a very small proportion of WTI futures contracts are actually physically settled.Reflecting the absence of a significant forward market, the assessed physical ‘spot’ price for WTI is determined differently to that for Dated Brent. The ‘spot’ price for WTI reported is typically the most recent and representative NYMEX WTI front-month. At contract expiry, the  reported price reflects the new front-month futures price plus the ‘cash roll’ – the cost of rolling a NYMEX futures contract forward into the next month without delivering on it.

Pricing Brent

Oil is priced according to both the financial and physical framework which surrounds it. Of the two crudes – Brent and WTI – Brent is by far the more difficult to price, which is one of the major reasons underpinning OPEC’s preference for it. Pricing Brent crude involves multiple variables. The matter is further complicated by the fact that Brent crude is priced differently, depending on the liquidity of the market.

Dated Brent – sometimes referred to as the ‘spot’ price for Brent – is the most commonly used reference price for the physical sale of oil by tanker. Dated Brent represents the price of a cargo of Brent crude oil that has been assigned a date, between 10-25 days ahead, for when it will be loaded and shipped to the purchaser.

Therefore, the implied Dated Brent prices for the period 10 to 25 days ahead can be calculated – the average of which is known as the North Sea Dated Strip. Combining this with the grade differentials for each of the four crudes in the Brent basket gives an outright price for each of Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk. The cheapest of which then becomes the final published daily quote for Dated Brent. This is typically Forties as it is the lowest quality of the four crudes in the Brent basket.

Pricing Brent When Illiquid

Occasionally, however, there is insufficient liquidity in the Brent forward market to use this as the starting point. In that case, the assessment instead starts in the futures market. A synthetic Brent forward price is derived by combining the ICE Brent futures prices with ‘exchange of futures for physicals’ (EFPs) values.

The ICE Brent futures contract specifies the delivery of 1,000 barrels of Brent crude oil at some determined future date. The contract is settled in cash, with an option for delivery via an EFP contract. Whereas futures contracts are highly standardized and traded on exchanges, EFPs are a more flexible contract that allow traders to convert a futures position into physical delivery, enabling traders to choose delivery location, grade type and trading partner. EFPs take place off-exchange, at a price agreed to by both parties.

Once a price for Brent forwards has been derived, the Dated Brent price can then be determined as before. While Dated Brent has traditionally been the most commonly used price in physical contracts, an increasing number of producers – including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran – have begun to adopt Brent futures prices as their preferred benchmark.

The most likely reason for this preference is the complexity of the Brent pricing system itself. By increasing the number of variables, a complex system invites uninformed speculators to mis-price the market, while the average movement over time of the price differentials allows OPEC to claim that the general trend is more or less consistent with physical supply/demand dynamics.


There are many variables, pricing systems and methodologies involved in determining the price of a barrel of oil. Those variables include supply, chemical composition, demand curves, geopolitical tension, refinery closings, new pipelines being put in, new discoveries, depleted fields, “official” OPEC figures on proven reserves, analysts guesstimates on what those reserves may actually be, the weather, the liquidity of the Brent market, the price of Natural Gas, the survival or unstable regimes, the Cushing backlog, extraction technology, spill cleanup, and a host of other interlocking variables, all of which amount to the price per barrel of the most important and controversial energy source on the planet.

Written by Jeff Fisher, Partner with South Coast Investment Advisors, LLC

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