It’s gratifying when someone takes on a topic I had wanted to address and does a better job than I could have. Various readers have explained how prices are formed in oil markets, most importantly, how for the vast majority of oil sold, prices are specified in long-term supply contracts and the benchmark is not spot but prices in the futures markets.
JD at Peak Oil Debunked (wish the blog has a less partisan name) describes how oil is priced in a straightforward and well referenced post (hat tip reader Michael).
Recall that the role of the futures market in oil prices is disputed. Most people outside the oil business assume that the oil markets work like many other markets: the spot market is a mechanism for price discovery (or trades in reasonable proximity to other markets where price discovery occurs). Near dates futures will similarly reflect expectations of supply and demand because at contract maturity they can be arbitraged to physical. Thus the effect of speculative activity in futures market will be constrained by the ability to take delivery.
Well, it ain’t that simple. JD explains:
A number of high-profile economists, like Paul Krugman, have recently been making the argument that trading in oil futures can’t really influence the price of physical oil because it doesn’t remove any oil from the market. Here’s a classic statement of this argument by Jon Birger, a staff writer from Fortune:
Here’s a suggestion: The next time a Congressional committee wants to hold a hearing on how “speculators” are driving up oil prices, each committee member should first be required to demonstrate – preferably in their opening remarks – a basic understanding of the mechanics of futures trading.
Even better, they should be required to explain in detail how it is that investors who never take delivery of a single barrel of crude – and thus never remove a drop of oil from the open market – are causing record high oil prices.Source
I will now provide that explanation, and in the process show that both Krugman and Birger are grossly misinformed about the way physical crude is actually priced in the global oil market.
Most crude oil is traded based on long-term contracts, and the prices in those contracts are set by a system known as “formula pricing”. In this system, the price of delivered crude is set by adding a premium to, or subtracting a discount from, certain benchmark or marker crudes, namely: West Texas Intermediate (WTI), Brent and Dubai-Oman. Generally, WTI is used as the benchmark for oil sold to North America, Brent for oil sold to Europe and Africa, and Dubai-Oman for Gulf crude sold in the Asia-Pacific market (Source1, Source2).
JD then provides a description of how the spot market became increasingly subject to manipulation, which led oil exporters to turn to the futures market, which was more liquid and hence less subject to games-playing, as the basis for contract pricing. JD cites a paper by Bassam Fattouh of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies:
[T]he futures market has grown to become not only a market that allows producers and refiners to hedge their risks and speculators to take positions, but is also at the heart of the current oil-pricing regime. Thus, instead of using dated Brent as the basis of pricing crude exports to Europe, several major oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran rely on the IPE Brent Weighted Average (BWAVE).11…
 The BWAVE is the weighted average of all futures price quotations that arise for a given contract of the futures exchange (IPE) during a trading day. The weights are the shares of the relevant volume of transactions on that day. Specifically, this change places the futures market, which is a market for financial contracts, at the heart of the current pricing system.
As you can see, Krugman and Birger are profoundly confused about the way the international oil markets actually function. Futures aren’t a paper bet on the direction of prices determined by some independent process. Futures themselves *determine* the price of most physical oil traded today. The futures price (+ or – the differential) literally *is* the price of oil.
He also provides further references on oil pricing.