What is Crack Spread?
A crack spread refers to the pricing difference between a barrel of crude oil and its byproducts such as gasoline, heating oil, jet fuel, kerosene, asphalt base, diesel fuel, and fuel oil. The business of refining crude oil into various components has always been volatile from the revenue point of view. The spread estimates the profit margin that a refinery can expect to generate from cracking the long-chain hydrocarbons of crude oil into useful petroleum byproducts. Depending on various factors such as weather seasonality, geopolitical issues, global supplies, and time of the year, the demand and supply for certain petroleum components may affect the profit margins that a refiner may generate from a barrel of crude oil.
Cracks spreads are used by refiners to hedge their Profit and Loss (P&L), while speculators use cracks spreads in futures trading. Oil refiners use crack spreads to hedge against any adverse price movements that may affect their profit margins. For example, if a refiner relies on selling gasoline and the price of gasoline drops below the price of crude oil, this is likely to result in a loss to the refiner. Speculators use crack spreads to profit from the price difference in crude oil and its byproduct components.
Factors Affecting Crack Spread
One of the factors that affect crack spreads is geopolitical issues. Generally, during periods of political uncertainty and instability, there will be a reduction in oil supply. The result is a rise in crude oil prices relative to refined products, and this weakens, or narrows, the crack spread initially. However, as refineries respond to the reduced crude oil supply and byproduct output reduction, the crack spread widens. Foreign policy changes also affect crude oil producers and the prices of crude byproducts.
Prevailing weather conditions, mainly summer and winter seasonality, affect crack spreads. During the summer season, there is a higher demand for specific byproducts such as gasoline and diesel, which significantly strengthens the crack spread. The winter season increases the demand for distillates like diesel fuel and motor gasoline and also results in a wider, positive crack spread.
There exists an inverse relationship between crude oil and currency strength, and any changes in the strength of a currency affect crude oil prices and ultimately the crack spread. When the value of a currency declines, crude oil prices increase, and this weakens the crack spread. Refiners hedge their profitability on the price difference between crude oil and its byproducts, so an increase in the value of crude oil means that that the profit margins from crude oil components are reduced. For refiners to get a strong positive crack spread, the price of crude oil must be significantly lower than the price of refined products.
How to Trade Crack Spreads?
Crack spreads are commonly traded using the following two methods:
1. Single product crack spreads
The single product crack spread is the most common type of crack spread, and it reflects the refinery margin between crude oil and refined products such as diesel or gasoline. It is executed by selling refined products futures and buying crude oil futures. If the refined product price is higher than the price of crude oil, the cracking margin is positive. If the refined product price is less than that of crude oil, the cracking margin is negative.
2. Multiple product crack spreads
The multiple product crack spreads are designed to reflect a refiner’s yield of refined products. According to the CME Group, gasoline output is double that of distillate fuel oil. This ratio has prompted hedgers to focus on 3:2:1 crack spreads. The 3:2:1 ratio crack spread is traded by buying three barrels of crude oil futures and selling two barrels of gasoline futures and one barrel of fuel oil futures. A refiner with lower yields of gasoline relative to other distillates might use other combinations such as 5:3:2 crack spreads. The 5:3:2 ratio is traded by buying five barrels of crude oil futures and selling three gasoline futures and two distillate fuel oil futures.
Integrated oil companies that control the supply chain from oil production to distribution of refined products are less affected by adverse price movements since their business model provides a natural hedge against such price movements. However, this is different with oil refiners who buy crude oil and sell refined petroleum byproducts. Any negative price movements on either side present them with a large economic risk. To hedge against adverse price movements, an oil refiner buys and sells futures contracts on its main refined products. Some financial intermediaries provide tailored products to oil refiners and speculators to facilitate crack spread trading. For example, the NYMEX division of the CME offers futures contracts on gasoline and heating oil crack spreads.
Crack Spread as a Market Signal
Speculators and investors use crack spreads as a market signal of price movements of crude oil and refined product market. It provides a real-time indicator of how the products are performing and the general profitability of the refinery business. When the crack spread widens, it means that there is an increase in demand and prices for the refined products. Investors see this as a sign that the crude oil prices will increase to match the demand for primary refined products such as gasoline and heating oil. If the crack spread tightens, it is a sign that refiners will slow down their production to tighten refined products supply to a point where the demand will restore their margins.