Oil Fundamentals: Reserves and Import/Export Dynamics

The present study belongs to the Oil Fundamentals project that the HyperVolatility team initiated a few weeks ago with the article “Oil Fundamentals: Crude Oil Grades and Refining Process”. Credit must be given to Liying Zhao (Options Engineer at HyperVolatility) for helping me to gather the necessary material.

This analysis will provide information regarding the demand and consumption of oil on a global scale and it will subsequently examine the import/export dynamics.

The first variables that will be observed are oil reserves. Oil reserves are those quantities of oil whose availability is documented by geo–physical and engineering studies of the oil–well under examination and whose extraction falls within the parameters indicated by current economic conditions (transactional and operational costs) and structural resources (equipment and technology at disposal). In other words, it is the oil whose presence has been proven and that can be extracted given the current level of transactional costs and machinery’s sophistication. According to recent researches, OPEC countries possess more than 70% of the world proven reserves but Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are the largest “containers” on the planet. There is a standardized and worldwide recognized way to look at reserves: the Reserves–to–Production Ratio. The R/P ratio is a fairly simple number which expresses, in terms of years, how long oil reserves for a specific country would last assuming that the current extraction rate would remain constant over the years. It goes without saying that the calculation for the R/P ratio is trivial because it is performed by simply dividing the oil reserves at the end of the year by the production for the year. The next chart displays the R/P ratio for all continents (the data have been provided by British Petroleum):

Oil Reserves to Production Ratio

The interpretation of the above reported graph is very straightforward: the numbers on the Y axis measures the years it would take to terminate all oil reserves starting from December 2012. For example, Europe and North America would take almost 22.3 and 38.6 years respectively to finish all reserves should the current production rate remains constant in the upcoming years. The African continent would employ 37.7 years, the Asia–Pacific region would need only 13.6 years while the Middle East has 78 years of proven reserves. On the other hand, the “best equipped” part of the world is constituted by Southern and Central American countries with almost 122 years of available oil. It is interesting to notice that the whole world, according to this study, would finish its reserves in the 2065. The reason petroleum liquids have been shrinking is obviously due to an ever increasing global demand which went from 32 – 33 million barrels per day at the beginning of the 70s to 83 – 84 millions in the 2011 – 2012 (the International Energy Agency forecasted that the global demand will increase to almost 92 million barrels per day in 2014). The largest oil consumers are without a doubt the countries with a high industrial development rate: USA and European countries. USA remains the largest single oil consuming country because it employs 25% of the total oil extracted on the planet but the current scenario is changing rapidly. In fact, China, Japan and India are now becoming key market players and their internal markets are heavily weighing on global demand and price levels. Let’s now focus on imports/exports dynamics.

Many countries both import and export large amounts of oil but there are some of them which consume more than what they can produce, so they have to import the rest, and others that use only a very small part of what they extract, so they can export more. The following chart shows the top 20 oil importing countries in 2012 (the data have been provided by CIA World FactBook):

Oil Import

It is evident that the United States are the largest single oil importing country in the world with more than 10 million barrels per day followed by China (5 millions), Japan (4.39 millions), India (3 millions) and Germany (2.67 millions). However, if we group together all the import figures for the European countries in the top 20 we see that the States (10 million b/d) import almost as much as Europe (13.8 million b/d). The chart highlights that many Asian developing countries, excluding China and India, are suddenly augmenting their demand and industrial productivity, in fact, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia import almost as much as the majority of Western European countries: 1.5 million barrels every day.

The next graph ranks the top 20 oil exporting countries (the data have been provided by CIA World FactBook):

Oil Export

The top 5 oil exporters in the world are Saudi Arabia (7.63 million b/d), Russia (5 millions), Iran (2.52 million b/d), Arab Emirates (2.39 million b/d) and Norway (2.18 million b/d). The chart clearly highlights the superiority of Middle East countries in the role of global oil suppliers (almost 16.8 million b/d). The only 2 outsiders are Russia and Norway: the former is the only serious competitor that Saudi Arabia has while the latter is ranked at the 5th place because of the Brent Blend oil whose wells are placed in the North Sea. It’s worth noting that the USA does not export its oil (apart from a small part of Alaskan oil) and this is precisely why the States ranks so low. The ranking, however, has lately changed because Russia used to be the biggest oil exporter in the world for many years but a recent change in the policy adopted by the OPEC has re–shaped the oil supply scenario.

So far we have looked at importers and exporters and we know who buys and who sell the most but at this point an obvious question arises: Who buys from Whom?

There are 3 blocks of large buyers: USA, Europe and Asia (Asia means China, India and Japan) and their suppliers are the following:

1) USA imports oil from South and Central America, Middle East and Canada

2) Europe imports oil from Russia, Middle East and North Africa (Libya, Angola, etc)

3) Asia imports oil from the Middle East, Africa and, to a lesser extent, from smaller Asian countries (South Korea, Singapore, etc)

The inter–market connections are high and they range from Europe to Middle East and from Africa to Asia. Nonetheless, the aforementioned list is important to understand why OPEC countries are so important: the oil supply market is literally dominated by OPEC members

The presents study terminates here but the HyperVolatility team invites you to read our previous researches entirely focused on oil and commodity markets:

“The Oil Arbitrage: Brent vs WTI”

“Commodities and Currencies: Inter – Market Analysis”

Oil Fundamentals: Crude Oil Grades and Refining Process

“The Pricing of Commodity Options”

“Commodity Volatility Indices: OVX and GVZ”

The HyperVolatility Forecast Service enables you to receive statistical analysis and projections for 3 asset classes of your choice on a weekly basis. Every member can select up to 3 markets from the following list: E-Mini S&P500 futures, WTI Crude Oil futures, Euro futures, VIX Index, Gold futures, DAX futures, Treasury Bond futures, German Bund futures, Japanese Yen futures and FTSE/MIB futures.

Send us an email at with the list of the 3 asset classes you would like to receive the projections for and we will guarantee you a 14 day trial.

Oil Fundamentals: Crude Oil Grades and Refining Process

First of all, I would like to give credit to Liying Zhao (Options Engineer at HyperVolatility) for helping me to conceptualize this article and to gather the necessary information to develop it. There will be other articles describing the physical side of the crude oil market so this is simply “the first gear of a more complex apparatus”.

The present analysis is not a quantitative research on the oil market and its aim is to list the most important aspects to consider before investing or trading the black gold. Consequently, the focus will primarily be on the petroleum physical market and on how the oil industry works. The HyperVolatility team spends a great deal of time analyzing and trading commodity markets, hence, crude oil positions have always had a considerable weight in our portfolio. Also, the great attention towards commodity markets generated by the credit crunch and the consistently high volume on crude oil futures and options are some of the reasons that convinced us to put together a general guideline for those who choose to venture into energy markets and in particular fossil fuels.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that there are almost 250 different types of crude oils in the world but the ones that are mentioned the most are primarily 2: the American West Texas Intermediate and the European Brent Blend (which is now the global benchmark).It is not unusual to hear financial journalists talking about other crude oils like the Nigerian Bonny, the Arab Light (Saudi) or the Dubai (UAE); nevertheless, the spotlight is almost exclusively on WTI and Brent. The reason these markets, particularly the Brent, have so much media coverage is due to their importance when pricing other crude oils worldwide. Again, the Brent is the nowadays global benchmark (although the WTI used to have this role) so every oil producer or buyer will have to know its price; the question is why?

Why all other crude oils have to be priced according to Brent price fluctuations?

The answer to this question is API gravity, sulphur content and export.

As we previously mentioned there are many types of crude oils in the world but the chemical composition of each crude grade differs slightly. Crude oil is a fossil fuel and it is made of hydrocarbons (molecules of hydrogen and carbon atoms) but what makes the real difference, in terms of commercial value, is the weight of the hydrocarbons. The rule is simple: the lighter, the better. In order to determine how heavy or light petroleum liquids are the American Petroleum Institute introduced a standardized scale called API gravity. The API gravity system is a standardized way to compare and rank the “lightness or heaviness” of diverse crude oils. The system is very simple: the API gravity coefficient measures how heavy or light petroleum liquids are with respect to water. Crude oils with an API gravity greater than 10 are considered to be light (so they float on water) while oils with API lower than 10 are classified as heavy (so they sink when mixed with water). Crude oils with high API values (10 and higher) are lighter and produce greater quantity of marketable product, hence, they are more commercially desirable. This concept can be better understood by looking at the following chart (source: The International Crude Oil Market Report):

Grade of Crude Oil

The graph displays the distribution of different crude oils according to API gravity (X axis) and sulphur content (Y axis). It is easy to notice that WTI and Brent are both located in the right – hand side of the chart and they are very close to the X axis. The reason these oils are situated in this area is because their API gravity is very high (which means they are light types of oil) and their sulphur content is lower than 0.5% which means they are sweet (the word “sweet” in technical jargon means that there is a low level of impurity).

Let’s summarize what has been stated so far:

1) API gravity measures the lightness / heaviness of crude oils

2) API higher than 10 means that the crude oil is light and more profitable in terms of commercial value

3) API lower than 10 means that the crude oil is heavy and produces a minor quantity of commercial product after refining

4) Sulphur content measures the degree of pureness of crude oil, the level of impurity that each crude oil type contains

5) Sulphur content higher than 0.5% indicates a high level of impurity (sour crude oil) that has to be removed

6) Sulphur content lower than 0.5% implies a low level of impurity (sweet crude oil). This condition is preferred because less work is needed and the refining process is faster

7) All the crude oils ranked at the bottom of the right hand side of the chart are considered to be the most attractive under a commercial point of view

The aforementioned bullet points explain fairly well why the Brent is one of the best crude oils in the world but why is it better than the WTI?

The answer is straightforward: the European Brent is exported while the West Texas Intermediate remains within the US.  Consequently, the WTI has a “minor impact” on international markets (in reality, a part of the Alaskan oil output is exported to Japan and South Korea but the quantity is so small to be irrelevant in terms of international impact).

There are other chemical and physical aspects that need to be mentioned when talking about crude oil and one of these is certainly viscosity. Viscosity is the “ability” of a specific crude oil or refined product to flow.

Why is this factor important?

The degree of viscosity is very important to determine how crude oil will be stored or transported which means that the cost of carry will be primarily influenced by this variable. Crude oils can be classified according to their viscosity coefficient:

1) Paraffinic crude oils have low viscosity but they are easily flammable. Most of the engines lubricating oils are made of paraffinic crude oil. Paraffinic oils have a high API gravity and therefore tend to be light types of crude oil

2) Naphthenic (or Asphaltic) crude oils have a high viscosity coefficient but they are not easily flammable. This is the case of bitumen. Naphthenic oils have low API gravity and therefore tend to be heavy types of crude oil

This classification is very useful because it helps us understand a bit better how the refining process works. Let’s combine all the information together:

– Light and sweet crude oils (Brent, WTI, Bonny) have high API gravity, low sulphur content, low viscosity, high flammability and therefore are paraffinic oils. Light and sweet crude oils, once refined, tend to produce high quantity of gasoline

– Heavy and sour oils (Venezuelan BCF, Russian Urals crude, etc) have low API gravity, high sulphur content, high viscosity, low flammability and therefore are naphthenic oils. Heavy and sour crude oils, once refined, tend to be used as bitumen feedstock

The refining process aims to separate petroleum liquids in different chemical components which will be subsequently treated and combined with solvents to generate new oil derivatives.

How does the process work?

The crude oil is essentially pumped into a furnace and here the raw petroleum releases gases and liquids which are subsequently channeled in a tower to start the fractional distillation process. The point of directing the oil in this tower is to separate or fractionate different chemical components using heat. Specifically, each chemical component will have a specific boiling point and by increasing the temperature every constituent will start vaporizing as soon as its own boiling point will be reached. This process is gradual so the crude oil will fractionate into different gases at different temperatures but it is also continuous, which means that new raw petroleum liquid will be injected into the distillation tower at regular intervals to replace the fluid that has been already fractioned. The refining process usually produces a standardized set of oil derivatives such as gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel and asphalt. Nevertheless, other products (methane, propane, kerosene, etc) are often distillated. Oil derivatives have a wide range of applications; here we list some of them:

1) Methane also knows as natural gas, can be used for heating

2) Ethane is usually employed as a feedstock for other production processes (like the one followed to produce plastic)

3) Propane can be used for both cooking and heating

4) Gasoline is primarily used as fuel for vehicles

5) Naphtha is another feedstock and it is generally reused in the petrochemical industry

6) Kerosene (known as paraffin in UK, Ireland, South Asia and South Africa) is predominantly employed to produce Jet fuel oil

7) Gas oils are used to distillate diesel engine fuels or for home heating

8) Fuel oils are reused to power refineries or power stations. Alternatively, they are often utilized as a fuel for ships but in this case they are referred to as bunker fuel or bunker fuel oil

Now, this information is surely very important to anyone who is seriously thinking to invest or trade oil markets. Oil fundamentals are sometimes overlooked but a sound understanding of the dynamics underlying the fossil fuel industry is essential to fully comprehend market movements. As we anticipated at the beginning of this article, this is only the first part of a broader project.

If you are interested in trading crude oil you may want to read some HyperVolatility researches dealing with this topic:

“The Oil Arbitrage: Brent vs WTI”

“The Pricing of Commodity Options”

Commodity Volatility Indices: OVX and GVZ

“Commodities and Currencies: Inter – Market Analysis”

The HyperVolatility Forecast Service enables you to receive statistical analysis and projections for 3 asset classes of your choice on a weekly basis. Every member can select up to 3 markets from the following list: E-Mini S&P500 futures, WTI Crude Oil futures, Euro futures, VIX Index, Gold futures, DAX futures, Treasury Bond futures, German Bund futures, Japanese Yen futures and FTSE/MIB futures.

Send us an email at with the list of the 3 asset classes you would like to receive the projections for and we will guarantee you a 14 day trial.

Commodity Volatility Indices: OVX and GVZ

The present research will examine the most popular commodity volatility indices proposed by the CBOE: the OVX and the GVZ. It is important to point out that this study is the second component of a bigger research whose first part is entitled “Equity Volatility Indices: VIX, VXN, VXD, RVX” . The analysis will follow the structure presented in the first half and it is aimed to provide pivotal volatility levels. (The HyperVolatility Forecast Service provides market projections for the VIX, Gold, WTI crude oil and many other asset classes. Send an email to and get a free 14 days trial). Before getting started it is worth reminding that the OVX is a volatility index based on the performance of the options written on the USO (United States Oil Fund) while the GVZ is calculated on options written on the SPDR Gold Shares Trust. The next chart displays the ranking of both commodity volatility indices:

Commodity Volatilities: Distribution Ranking

The most important levels to observe are the 25%, the median and the 75% ones. The OVX has a median value fluctuating around 32.8% while the GVZ is much lower and, on average, it does not get higher than 18.1%. In case of low volatility environments the OVX remains around the range 29% – 30% while the GVZ tends to oscillate around 16%. On the other hand, high volatility days would probably see the OVX moving around 37% while the GVZ does not usually surpass the 21.3%. These levels are crucial to anyone who wants to trade oil or gold volatilities because they will provide buy / sell signals for options traders. Let’s list some of them (remember these are not recommendations but only a general rule):

1) Long Gold or WTI Oil volatility when the OVX is below 30% and the GVZ is around 16%

2) Range trading strategies, such as condors or butterflies, should be adopted when the OVX is higher than 35% and the GVZ is above 19%

3) If the OVX or the GVZ are fluctuating around their median levels, it implies that some major movement is about to occur. Therefore long volatility strategies could be implemented when the OVX is around 30% – 31% and the GVZ is in the 17% – 18% interval.

The fact that a volatility index has a high value does not mean that it is the most volatile one. We already tried to address this issue when dealing with equity volatility indices so now we will attempt to explain such a phenomenon for commodity volatilities too. The next chart plots the volatilities for the OVX and GVZ indices:

Volatility of Commodity Volatilities

The chart clearly displays the volatility of both commodity volatility indices. The relationship between the OVX and the GVZ is positive, in fact, the correlation between the 2 indices is +0.77 while the correlation between the volatility of the OVX and the volatility of the GVZ is +0.62. It is interesting to notice that the 10% – 13% interval is a key mean reverting level in both markets because all the time the volatility of the OVX or GVZ touched this level both asset classes experienced a major volatility explosion. The next chart shows the distribution ranking for the volatility of commodity volatility indices:

Volatility of Commodity Volatility: Distribution Ranking

The distribution ranking demonstrates that the GVZ, although lower than the OVX in volatility points, is more volatile than the OVX index. Specifically, GVZ’s volatility oscillates on average around the 18% while the OVX’s oscillation rate does not go higher than 13.3%. In low volatility environments the oil volatility index’s fluctuations rate is not lower than 10.6% while gold’s index oscillations rarely gets lower than 13.9% (these are the mean reverting points for the volatility of commodity volatilities). On the other hand, volatility explosions are not higher than 20.7% for the volatility of the OVX and 22.5% for the GVZ. Now we can improve on the list of buy/sell signals we previously mentioned (again these are not trading recommendations but only a general guide):

1) Long Gold or WTI Oil volatility when OVX’s volatility is around 10% – 11% or when GVZ’s volatility is within 13% – 14%

2) Condors or butterflies, should be entered when OVX’s volatility is higher than 19% – 20% and the GVZ’s one is above the 20% – 21% interval

3) If OVX and GVZ volatilities are oscillating around their median values some long volatility strategies are definitely safer than selling straddles or naked options. Hence, when the volatility of the OVX is around 13% – 14% and the volatility of the GVZ is in the 18% – 19% interval, it is a good risk management practice to hedge the portfolio against a potentially higher degree of market fluctuations

If you are interested in trading gold futures or options you might want to read our research “Trading Gold and Silver: A Realized Volatility Approach”

Instead, if you are looking to trade WTI oil futures or options you will find the research “The Oil Arbitrage: Brent vs WTI” very helpful

The Oil Arbitrage: Brent vs WTI

It is no secret that the most important crude oils in the world are the European Brent (extracted by 15 oil fields located in the East Shetland Basin in the North Sea) and the American WTI which is extracted in the US and delivered at the Cushing in Oklahoma. It is well known that the Brent Crude oil has become the global benchmark and it is used to price crude oils worldwide. Although they are extracted in geographically distant locations the chemical composition of WTI and Brent is not exceptionally different because both of them are considered to be “sweet oils” which means that both contain a low concentration of sulphur: 0.37% for the Brent and 0.24% for the WTI. This small introduction is necessary to understand that the supply/demand forces driving price fluctuations are dissimilar and the discrepancy is even clearer if we add that the Brent is exported in the whole Europe and worldwide while the WTI does not leave the US.

The Brent/WTI arbitrage (the word arbitrage is a misnomer because we are buying and selling two different asset classes) is a fairly popular trading technique within the energy sector and its aim is to profit from price discrepancies. The strategy is reasonably simple and it consists of contemporarily selling the WTI and buying the Brent (short arb) or selling the Brent and buying the WTI (long arb). Clearly, this is a spread trading technique rather easy to implement and control because both Brent and WTI futures share the same size (1,000 barrels) while the tick value (1 cent per barrel) equals to $ 10 for both contracts.

How does the trade work? Let’s assume that a trader decides to sell WTI and buy Brent futures (short arb). He sells the WTI at $ 100 and buys the Brent at $ 110 and he will make money if the 2 asset classes will move in opposite directions. If the WTI drops to $ 97 while the Brent closes at $ 112 our hypothetical trader would have made a $ 3,000 profit from the WTI and $ 2,000 from the Brent for each contract traded.

What happens if WTI and Brent move in the same direction? The strategy would still be profitable if the price augment in the Brent market outweighs the rise in WTI futures. If the Brent gains $ 3 and the WTI $ 1.5, the trader would make a $ 3,000 profit from the long Brent position but he would lose $ 1,500 on the short WTI contract which implies that the overall profit would be equal to $ 3,000 – $ 1,500 = $ 1,500

As you can see the trade would still show a profit because in our example WTI and Brent experienced different volatilities and consequently their fluctuations were not symmetrical in terms of magnitude (the first moved 3 dollars and the second only $ 1.5). However, should the Brent had moved lower and the WTI higher the short WTI / long Brent position would have lost money.

The chart #1 shows how the most important oils oscillated since 2009 until 2011:

Brent and WTI futures

It is evident that until 2011both WTI and Brent were moving symmetrically but for some fundamental reasons, such as global demand and some logistic problems with the WTI, the prices started to diverge and the spread became rather large. On the other hand, the narrowing of the arb from September 2011 onwards is mainly due to an increased demand and to the construction of the Seaway pipeline which facilitates the transportation of the WTI from the Cushing in Oklahoma to Freeport in Texas. Let’s have a look at the WTI/Brent spread now:

Brent / WTI spread

The chart #2 shows very clearly that since 2009 until the beginning of 2011 the differential oscillated following a mean reverting process (because it always tended to get back to the 0 line) and it used to fluctuate within fixed boundaries (because it rarely surpassed the $ 2.5 threshold and infrequently remained below the – $2 level for an extended period of time). However, the scenario has quite changed because in 2011 the Brent/WTI spread increased substantially and achieved the $ 25 level. If we go back to the first chart we can immediately understand what caused such a high spread: the Brent price kept increasing while WTI futures prices kept dropping.

How can a trader take advantage of such divergence? When the trade should be triggered?

Buying or selling the oil arb is up to the trader and it depends on fundamental data such as supply/demand forces, industrial productivity, etc but it is possible to identify when the trade could have a higher probability of success. The chart #3 will help us prove our point:

Brent / WTI correlation

The graph shows the correlation (which fluctuates within -1 and 1) between Brent and WTI since 2009 until the end of the 2011 and its interpretation is straightforward: the higher the correlation, the stronger the relationship between the 2 asset classes. The correlation on average is rather high which means that Brent and WTI tend to experience similar fluctuations, although with different volatilities, but there is a second important characteristic that it is very useful in practical terms: the correlation is mean reverting because it tends to drop and then explode again.

In practical terms, all the time the correlation index drops the relationship between Brent and WTI weakens, hence, the probability of dissimilar fluctuations amplify. Conversely, an increasing correlation would imply the opposite scenario.

We now know that a plunge in the correlation index would increase the probability of maximizing our profits because it would highlight that the relationship between the 2 asset classes is not going to be strong and that the spread will likely expand.  However, in real trading conditions we will need specific entry points, some numerical thresholds to look at in order to trigger our trades and the following tables should be a valuable tool for anyone interested in trading the oil arb:

Brent / WTI spread price distribution

Bear in mind that these are not trading recommendations but merely a guide and the price / correlation levels refer to the period 2009 – 2011.

The table #1 represents the price distribution of the Brent/WTI spread. The outcome of our research shows that the lowest price achieved by the spread is $ -5.42 (which means that the Brent was lower than the WTI) while the highest point was $ 26.84. The percentage row displays the percentage of observations below the reported price levels. In other words, the 24.97% of  total observations were below the $ -0.36, almost 50% of the Brent/WTI spread prices were below the $ 2.28 level while the price fluctuated below the $10.98 threshold in the 74.77% of cases. Now let’s see what the correlation key points are:

Brent / WTI correlation distribution

On average the correlation is around 0.82 but in the 25% of cases it dropped to 0.62 and it remained lower than 0.91 almost the 80% of the time. The extreme points are -0.35 and 0.99 that have been touched only once.

 Strategy Analysis

1)   The Brent/WTI spread fluctuated within $ 2 and $ 2.3 most of the time

2)  The correlation is usually fairly strong and it frequently oscillates around 0.78 and 0.82

3)  In order to have a reliable entry point both price and correlation should be out of their ranges. We should be in a situation where there is an evident mismatch

4)  Entry points are signalled by a breakthrough of the aforementioned price and correlation levels because if the arb price is higher than $ 2.3 and the correlation is lower than 0.78 then the probability of success is higher. Needless to say that good opportunities arise also when the arb price is lower than $ 2 dollars and the correlation is higher than $ 0.8

In our HyperVolatility Forecast Service we dig deeper through news and calculations. We provide financial forecasts based on volatility analysis and statistics that you will not find in a retail trading platform. The HyperVolatility Forecast Service enables you to receive the statistical analysis and projections for 3 asset classes of your choice on a weekly basis. Every member can select up to 3 markets from the following list: E-Mini S&P500 futures, WTI Crude Oil futures, Euro futures, VIX Index, Gold futures, DAX futures, Treasury Bond futures, German Bund futures, Japanese Yen futures and FTSE/MIB futures.

Send us an email at with the list of the 3 asset classes you would like to receive the projections for and we will guarantee you a 14 day trial.

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