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Brent and WTI – A tale of two benchmarks




Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) are two globally recognised oil benchmarks. When market participants refer to the price of oil, they typically refer to one or the other or both. But despite having quite similar chemical properties, there are important distinguishing features between the two. Financial markets recognise these differences and, as a result, price the two differently. The two benchmarks have contrasting features in terms of where the oil is produced, how it is stored and transported and the way it is traded in international markets. These differences not only explain the historical price discrepancy between the two, but also help us understand why the two have behaved differently during the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing market volatility. This article will contrast the distinguishing features between the two and, after developing a new lens to view the two benchmarks, replay the recent episode when WTI prices crashed into negative territory. The article will conclude by outlining the forces which will shape the fluid commodity going forward.

Same, same, but different

In ‘A tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens, Sydney Carton sacrifices his life to save Charles Darnay, who is married to the woman Carton loves, by taking his place in prison moments before he is taken to the guillotine during the French revolution. He is able to pull off this selfless act of bravery thanks to the uncanny resemblance between him and Darnay. Similarly, most people would not be able to tell the difference if a barrel of WTI was replaced with one for Brent given the likeness between the two. Both Brent and WTI are referred to as light and sweet. They are ‘light’ in terms of the American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity. Having an API gravity greater than 10 makes them light and allows them to float on water, while an API gravity of less than 10 would have caused them to sink. Similarly, both have low sulphur content making them ‘sweet’ and easy to refine (See Figure 01).

Brent and WTI
Source: Energy Information, McKinsey & Company, WisdomTree.

But while Carton and Darnay looked alike, they were distinctly different individuals. Brent and WTI too, despite their resemblance, have their disparities. Brent Crude is extracted from the North Sea. Oil production from Europe, Africa and the Middle East tends to use Brent as its main benchmark. This accounts for around two-thirds of internationally traded crude oil. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting countries (OPEC), an intergovernmental organisation comprising 13 key oil producing countries as well as their 10 partner countries (collectively referred to as OPEC+), also typically use Brent as their oil price benchmark. In contrast, WTI is sourced primarily from Texas and most oil production in the US uses WTI as its main benchmark.

WTI to Brent discount
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Data as at 29 April 2020. Spread calculated as the difference between the prices of the generic first futures contracts of Brent and WTI.

Brent and WTI have always traded at different prices giving rise to the Brent – WTI spread (Figure 02). Purely in terms of quality, WTI has a slight edge over Brent on account of its lower sulphur content making it moderately ‘sweeter’ and thus easier to refine. For this reason, WTI ought to theoretically trade at a premium over Brent. For a large part of the first decade of this century, WTI did indeed trade at a premium, i.e. the Brent – WTI spread was negative. Over the last decade however, the shale revolution in the US has brought large volumes of oil into the market making the US one of the largest oil producers in the world. The shale revolution refers to a combination of technological improvements and financial infrastructure enabling the US to produce oil from low-permeable shale, sandstone and carbonate rock formations in larger quantities than ever before. The shale oil industry has grown rapidly since 2011 and accounted for 63% of total US crude oil production in 2019 (according to the US Energy Information Administration). In line with economic principles of demand and supply, as the total volume of oil production increased in the US, this put downward pressure on WTI. The Brent – WTI spread has generally been positive in the last decade.

Another reason for the Brent – WTI spread is the logistical challenge for the US to transport oil from landlocked production hubs through a network of pipelines and to ship it overseas. This impinges on the overseas demand for oil from the US (WTI). In contrast, Brent is produced at or closer to sea making it easier for it to reach its overseas destinations. The US is however investing heavily in its pipeline infrastructure to enable it to send large vessels of oil from its shores to international buyers. Several such infrastructure projects are expected to be completed by 2021-2022 when we might see an increase in demand for WTI and thus a narrowing of its spread with Brent.

The historic WTI crash

The explanation above of the spread between the two benchmarks omits any discussion about the unprecedented spike on 20 April 2020. This section will unravel the story behind the anomalous occurrence.

On Monday 20 April 2020, markets witnessed a historic crash in WTI prices (Figure 03). The crash occurred a day before the active Nymex WTI futures contract was due to expire. This contract, meant to deliver oil between 01 May and 31 May, crashed into negative territory as oil storage in the US became very tight. With the coronavirus pandemic causing considerable oil demand destruction putting entire countries in lockdown and bringing economic activity to a grinding halt, the reduction in oil production was not enough to balance the market creating a supply glut. The main delivery and settlement point in Cushing, Oklahoma was approaching its storage limit with any additional capacity likely already leased out or earmarked for other purposes. This acute pressure, so close to contract expiry at the point where contracts settle, contributed to the negative price. Those taking physical delivery from the expiring futures contract were being paid to take the oil and find a place to store it. The May contract expired the following day in slightly positive territory. When the June contract became the active contract upon the May contract’s expiry, prices recovered further as the issue of June deliveries creating the same problem was less worrying, at least at that point.

WTI price
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Data as at 29 April 2020.

But Brent did not endure a similar crash. The main reason for this is that WTI, traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), is a deliverable futures contract. Thus, upon expiry, the holder of the futures contract takes delivery of the underlying, i.e. barrels of oil. Brent however, traded on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), has a cash settlement procedure whereby the holder of the futures contract need not take delivery of the underlying upon expiry. Therefore, storage issues create a more direct risk to investors in WTI futures.

Outside of this idiosyncrasy pertaining to futures trading, the two benchmarks generally move with a high degree of correlation (Figure 04). At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic’s acceleration in April, a third of global oil demand was wiped out. Soon thereafter, major oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia engaged in a price war. This created a double shock for oil as the suppliers opened the floodgates at a time when demand had just crashed. Both benchmarks experienced severe price weakness. But as policy decisions from OPEC+ can be expected to impact Brent prices more than WTI, the deal reached by the group at the start of April to cut suppliesprovided slightly more cushioning to Brent.

Brent och WTI chart
Source: WisdomTree, Bloomberg. Data as at 29 April 2020.

What happens next?

With a deeper understanding of the drivers of the two benchmarks, historic and recent price behaviour makes more sense. But the all-important question is, “what happens next?”. The fate of oil prices rests heavily on how quickly the world can overcome the pandemic and get the economic engines firing again. Volatility in oil prices may persist in the coming weeks, or even months, until uncertainty with regards to the pandemic and lockdowns diminishes. The relative price behaviour of WTI and Brent during this period will depend on the degree to which producers in the US and OPEC+ cut supplies to balance the market.

We however hope to paint a more optimistic picture of the world in the second half of this year. Oil prices may not recover quickly to where they were in February this year due to an overhang of excess supply, a fractured OPEC+ and a dented global economic engine. Nonetheless, after all the pain, the world will eventually return to some semblance of normalcy. Manufacturers will switch their machines on again, cars will return to the roads and aeroplanes will return to the skies. Once again, oil is expected to be in demand. And while one protagonist had to sacrifice himself to save the other in the tale told by Dickens, we expect both mainstays from the tale of two benchmarks to rise again when the crisis is over.

Mobeen Tahir, Associate Director, Research, WisdomTree


This material is prepared by WisdomTree and its affiliates and is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of the date of production and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this material are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by WisdomTree, nor any affiliate, nor any of their officers, employees or agents. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

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Metals price forecast: Lower Before Higher



SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

Lower before higher

SEB - Prognoser på råvaror - Commodity

The world is slowing down along with fiscal and monetary tightening. The rapid rise in interest rates this year will work with a lag so the slowdown in the real economy is likely to continue. We expect metals prices to ease along with that. The continued deterioration in the Chinese property market is likely structural with growth shifting towards higher value sectors including green energy and EVs. Chinese credit expansion has started. Stronger demand for metals like copper, nickel and aluminium is likely to emerge in H2-23. Strong prices for metals over the coming decade due to sub-par capex spending over the past decade is likely.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities at SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Weakening macro and weakening demand. The world is now in the grip of a tightening craze amid inflation panic which was the result of the stimulus boom ignited by Covid-19 panic. The US expanded its M2 monetary base by 30% of GDP during the stimulus boom. Donald Trump earlier clamped down on immigration from Mexico/Latin America. Rampant consumer spending on capital goods together with an ultra-tight labor market then led to intense inflation pressure in the US. But also, in many other countries which also stimulated too much. The US is ahead of the curve with respect to interest rate hikes. The USD has rallied, forcing many central banks around the world to lift rates to defend their currencies as well as fighting their own inflationary pressures. The Japanese central bank has refrained from doing so and has instead intervened in the yen currency market for the first time since 1998. The year 2022 will likely be the worst selloff in global government bonds since 1949 as interest rates rise rapidly from very low levels. This is taking place following a decade where the world has been gorging on ultra-cheap debt. There is clearly a risk that something will break apart somewhere in the financial system as the world gallops through this extreme roller coaster ride of stimulus and tightening. On top of this we have and energy crisis in Europe where natural gas prices for year 2023 currently is priced at 700% of normal levels. War in Ukraine, risk for the use of nuclear weapons, an enduring cool-down of the Chinese property market and continued lock-downs in China due to Covid-19 is adding plenty of uncertain elements.

Downside price risks for metals over the coming 6-9 months. The significant rise in rates around the world will work with a lag. There can be up to a 12-month lag from rates starts to rise to when they take real effect. Continued economic cool-down in the economy is thus likely. Chinese politicians seem unlikely to run yet another round of property market-based stimulus. As such there are clearly downside risks to global economic growth and industrial metals prices over the coming 6 months.

China may be a “White Swan Event” in H2-23 onward. LME’s China seminar in London on Monday 24 October this year was very interesting. The brightest spot in our view was Jinny Yang, the Chief China economist at ICBC Standard Bank. She stated that China may turn out to be a “white swan event” in H2-2023. Further that the Chinese economy now is on a decade long type of transition period. Away from property focused growth. With a shift instead to technology and innovation, telecoms and energy transition, consumer demand side economy and higher value and more advanced sectors. The property market will be a fading sector with respect to growth. Chinese politicians are fully committed to the energy transition. No slowdown in there. Credit expansion has already started. The real effect of that will emerge in H2-23. The new growth focus will be different from before. But it will still imply lots of metals like aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt, manganese, and other special metals. There will be less copper for pipes and wiring for housing but there will be more copper for EVs, Solar power, Wind power and power networks etc.

Copper: Struggling supply from Chile, rising supply from Africa while Russian exports keeps flowing to market. The Chinese housing market normally accounts for 20% of global copper demand. So, slowing Chinese housing market is bad for copper. Russian exports keep flowing to SE Asia where it is re-exported. Good supply growth is expected from Africa in 2023. Supply from Chile is struggling with falling ore grades, political headwinds, and mining strikes. Demand is projected to boom over the coming decades while investments in new mines have been sub-par over the past decade. So strong prices in the medium to longer term. But in the short-term the negative demand forces will likely have the upper hand.

Nickel: Tight high-quality nickel market but surplus for low-quality nickel. There is currently a plentiful supply of low-grade nickel with weak stainless-steel demand and strong demand for high quality nickel for EV batteries. The result is a current USD 5-6000/ton price premium for high-quality vs. low-quality nickel. High-quality LME grade nickel now only accounts for 25% of the global nickel market. Over the coming decade there will be strong demand growth for high-quality nickel for EV batteries, but high-quality NiSO4 will take center stage. The price of high-quality nickel over the coming decade will depend on how quickly the world can ramp up low-grade to high-grade conversion capacity.

Aluminium: Russian production and exports keeps flowing at normal pace to the market through different routes. Supply from the western world set to expand by 1.3 m ton pa in 2023, the biggest expansion in a decade. Demand is projected to grow strongly over the decade to come with energy transition and EVs being strong sources of demand. Western premiums likely to stay elevated versus Asian premiums to attract metal. Increasing focus on low carbon aluminium. But weakness before strength.

SEB commodities price forecast:

SEB commodities price forecast

Chinese credit cycle vs industrial metals. Chinese credit expansion has already started.

Chinese credit cycle vs industrial metals
Source: SEB calculations, data from Blberg

This report has been compiled by SEB´s Commodity Research, a division within Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB (publ) (”SEB”), to provide background information only.

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Europe’s energy policy unravels a potential advantage for US energy over Europe




The clock is ticking for Europe to shield its economy amidst the current energy crisis. The cost of electricity across the European bloc is nearly 10 times the 10-year average in response to Russia cutting back natural gas supplies in retaliation to sanctions. There has been a substantial increase in the share of supply of Liquidifies Natural Gas (LNG) and alternative suppliers as a direct replacement of waning Russian gas supply.

Figure 1: Natural gas flows in the European market, first half 2022 versus first half 2021

Karta hur importen av naturgas till Europa har förändrats
Source: Bruegel, WisdomTree as of 6 September 2022. Please note: Arrows width indicates size of 2022 flow.

European leaders are racing to come up with a plan on energy intervention in the power markets. One of the measures being touted is imposing an energy windfall tax on oil and gas profits to help households and businesses survive this upcoming winter season. The plan is to re-channel these unexpected profits from the energy sector to help domestic consumers and companies pay these high bills. The windfall tax on the oil and gas companies should be treated as a “solidarity contribution,” according to European Commission (EC) President, Ursula von der Leyen.

Imposing a windfall tax on those profiting from the war

A windfall tax would impose a levy on the revenues generated by non-gas producing companies when market prices exceed €200 per megawatt hour (Mwh) and redistribute excess revenues to vulnerable companies and households. There has been greater consensus among other European Union (EU) countries on the windfall tax compared to other parts of the European Commission’s 5-point plan. This includes – setting a price cap on Russian gas, a mandatory reduction in peak electricity demand, funding for ailing utility companies, a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies and changes to collateral requirements for electricity companies. The EC’s plan will need to meet the approval of the bloc before being enforced. The most controversial issue remains the Russian price cap – aimed at penalising Russia for weaponising energy.

Coordinated energy policy needed despite different energy mix across EU bloc

There are major differences between member states based on those that rely on coal, nuclear or renewable power owing to which imposing a one energy policy will be challenging. Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia, known to import large amounts of Russian gas are against the price cap on Russian gas. On the other hand, a number of  EU countries including France, Italy, and Poland, support a cap, but argue it should apply to all imported forms of the fuel, including LNG. Germany is undecided but fears the disagreements on the price caps risk spoiling EU unity. Spain, a big generator of wind and solar power was quick to draw criticism of the proposed €200/Mwh as it does not correspond to the real costs and fails to support electrification and the deployment of renewables.

In the US, various Senators including Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, have proposed legislation that would double the tax rate of large oil and gas companies excess profits. However, given the current political climate it seems increasingly unlikely that these proposals would gain any traction in Congress.

Europe’s energy policy likely to put a strain on capex in the near term

Since the oil price plunge from 2014 to 2016 alongside climate change awareness and Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) mandates, the energy sector saw a sharp decline in capital expenditure (capex). Since then, capex in the global energy sector has failed to attain the levels last seen at the peak in 2014. While capex trends in Europe’s energy sector had begun to outpace that of the US, driven mainly by a rise in the share of spending on clean energy, we believe the impending energy crisis and energy policy including the national windfall levies in Europe are likely to disincentivise capex in Europe compared to the US over the medium term. High prices are encouraging several countries to step up fossil fuel investment, as they seek to secure and diversify their sources of supply.

Source: Bloomberg, WisdomTree as of 31 August 2022.

The divergent energy policies and prevalent supply situations in the US and Europe opens up a potential opportunity in the energy sector. The energy sector has been the unique bright spot in global equity markets in 2022 posting the strongest earnings results in H1 2022. Despite its strong price performance, the US energy sector trades at a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 8x and has a dividend yield of 3%. In September 2008, the energy sector had a 12.5% weight in the S&P 500 and was the fourth largest sector by market capitalisation in the world’s largest economy and equity market. Fast forward to today, the energy sector accounts for only 4% of the S&P 500 Index. While the future trajectory is greener, the world has come to terms with the fact that we will require oil and gas in the interim in order to fulfil our energy requirements. Investment is increasing in all parts of the energy sector, but the main boost in recent years has come from the power sector – mainly in renewables and grids – and from increased spending on end-use efficiency. As Europe plans to reduce its reliance on Russian energy supply, it will become more reliant on US LNG imports. This should fuel further investment in the US energy sector in the interim.

Aneeka Gupta, Director, Macroeconomic Research, WisdomTree

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Agricultural commodities could offer a hedge against inflation




Agricultural commodity prices have been buoyed higher by rising grain and oilseed prices. At a time, when global equities have sold off by nearly 13.88% amidst soaring inflation and tightening liquidity conditions, agricultural commodities are up 26.8%. There are a plethora of supply side issues emanating from the war that are likely to continue to drive prices higher – the rise of protectionism, higher fertiliser costs, changing biofuel mandates and adverse weather conditions to name a few. The Russia-Ukraine war has had ripple effects from disrupting supply chains to raising fertiliser costs.

Rising protectionism buoys agricultural commodities higher

The war-related disruptions have also given rise to protectionism. To cite a few examples in 2022– India, the world’s third largest wheat producer, announced it would restrict wheat exports to manage domestic supplies of the grain, which led to a sharp rise in wheat prices. Indonesia also announced an export ban on palm oil on April 28, but the ban was lifted on May 19 after hundreds of farmers rallied to protest the move. In a tight oil-seeds markets, the initial announcement led soybean oil, an alternative to palm oil, sharply higher.

Source: WisdomTree as of 7 June 2022

Higher biofuel blending mandates to bolster demand for corn and soybean oil

Changes in the biofuel blending mandates are also poised to increase demand for agricultural commodities. The US is home to the world’s largest biofuel market. The Biden administration is ordering refiners to boost the use of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring refiners to mix 20.63 billion gallons of renewable fuels into gasoline and diesel this year, marking a 9.5% increase over last year’s target. This will put pressure on refiners to blend more biofuel into their gasoline production this year, resulting in a net positive impact on the biofuels industry. Grains such as corn stand to benefit owing to their high starch content and relatively easy conversion to ethanol. Amidst waning stockpiles of diesel, Brazil is also considering increasing the biodiesel blend to 15% from 10% (i.e. the amount of soybean oil blended into trucking fuel). This has the potential to bolster demand for soybeans at a time when soybeans are already in short supply due to droughts in South America and US plantings trail last year’s pace.

Rising fertiliser costs are weakening demand, in turn lowering yields

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused disruptions in fertiliser production and material price increases, which has put farmer margins and agricultural yields at risk elsewhere, driving the prices of most agricultural commodities higher. Russia and Ukraine account for a significant share of the global fertiliser trade. Russia produces 9% of global nitrogen fertiliser, 10% of global phosphate fertiliser, and 20% of global potash fertiliser. It exports more than two thirds of its production of each product. Belarus produces an additional 17% of global potash and exports most of it.

Owing to its high soil quality, Argentina tends to use less fertilisers, but Brazil (the world’s largest importer of fertilisers) of which 85% of its needs are imported, is likely to feel the impact more. Russia alone accounts for 25% of Brazil’s total fertiliser imports. Farmers can also plant more soybeans, which require less fertilisers than corn. The US and global corn balance are set to continue to tighten, which suggests that the current high price environment is set to linger. The high prices and low availability of fertilisers is making farmers reduce usage and is also resulting in lower fertiliser prices similar to the trend witnessed back in 2008.

Ammonia prices
Source: Bloomberg, WisdomTree as of 27 May 2022.

Speculative positioning garnering momentum among agricultural commodities 

According to data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), net speculative positioning in agricultural commodities has risen considerably since the covid pandemic. Tighter supply coupled with stockpiling by national governments concerned about food security has led to a rise in agricultural commodity prices. Not only has net speculative positioning on agricultural commodities risen versus its own history but also in comparison to other commodity subsectors, as illustrated in the chart below:

Speculative positions
Source: WisdomTree, CFTC, Bloomberg as of 25 May 2022.

Adverse weather conditions impact agricultural commodities

El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific—the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or “ENSO” for short. The pattern shifts back and forth irregularly every two to seven years, and each phase triggers predictable disruptions of temperature, precipitation. The current La Niña has been around since October 2021. It has been responsible for the South American droughts, milder weather in Southern parts of US and heavy rainfalls across the Pacific Northwest. There is a 51% chance La Niña could continue into the December to February period, with those odds down from last month’s forecast of 58% according to the US climate prediction centre. The waters across the equatorial Pacific Ocean are expected to stay cool or be close to normal between June and September, which means the influence on weather patterns won’t be enough to disrupt tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic.  


Agricultural commodities have posted a strong performance in 2022. Yet there remain plenty of factors that could drive the performance of this commodity subsector even higher. Agricultural commodities are unique owing to their high dependence on weather conditions that make them volatile but also offer diversification benefits.

Aneeka Gupta, Director, Macroeconomic Research, WisdomTree

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