What Is Crude Oil?

What Is Crude Oil?

5 Min.

Crude oil is a natural resource that is extracted from the earth and then refined into various petroleum products, including gasoline and jet fuel. It is primarily composed of hydrocarbon deposits and other organic materials that date back millions of years ago from the remains of plants and animals. Petroleum is a general term used to describe crude oil, including other products derived from it after refining. Crude oil is a global commodity that is traded in various markets worldwide, both as spot oil and through derivatives contracts. Many economists consider crude oil as the most important commodity worldwide because it is currently the primary source of energy production.


Crude oil, a pivotal global commodity, profoundly influences economic dynamics. Fluctuations in its price ripple through gasoline costs, shipping expenses, and production inputs. Price shifts hinge on the interplay of supply and demand, a balance shaped by geopolitical events and natural disasters. Investors engage through futures markets, spot markets, or exchange-traded funds.

Historical Landscape

The emergence of crude oil during the Industrial Revolution marked a transformative era, powering machinery and innovations. Today, the world's economic landscape heavily relies on crude oil, with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia as key producers.

Crude oil's role in the environmental debate remains complex, with concerns about global warming and ecosystem damage. Nevertheless, it remains an economic linchpin, and technological advancements, notably fracking, reshaped the energy landscape. Amidst these shifts, the 21st century brought forth alternative energy sources, ranging from electric cars to solar-powered homes, signaling a broader transition.

Distinguishing Crude Oil from Petroleum

The term "Petroleum" originates from the Latin words "petra" meaning "rock" and "oleum" meaning "oil." It is often used synonymously with "crude oil." In essence, petroleum serves as a broader term encompassing crude oil, the unrefined oil extracted from the earth, and other refined petroleum derivatives. These products encompass diesel, gasoline, and more.

Oil Investment Insights

Oil investments encompass spot and futures contracts, catering to both speculative assets and portfolio diversification. Spot contracts offer real-time pricing, while futures contracts fix prices for future delivery. There are two prominent oil contracts that command attention in the oil market. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude is the North American benchmark, trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). In Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, North Sea Brent Crude sets the standard, trading on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). While these contracts exhibit correlated movement, WTI responds more to American economic developments, while Brent is attuned to global factors. Multiple futures contracts coexist, with most activity concentrated in the front-month contract, also known as the most active contract.

Spot vs. Future Oil Prices

Oil futures may trade at levels above, below, or in parity with spot prices. This differential signifies market conditions and anticipations. Elevated futures prices relative to spot prices suggest an optimistic market outlook, with purchasers willing to pay a premium for future delivery. Conversely, lower futures prices indicate bearish sentiments.

Terms like "backwardation" and "contango" categorize the relationship between expected future spot prices and actual futures prices. Contango signifies futures prices exceeding anticipated spot prices, while normal backwardation suggests futures prices below expected future spot prices. Distinct futures contracts also exhibit varying prices based on their delivery timelines.

Price Forecasting

Predicting crude oil prices hinges on various models, including oil futures, regression-based models, time-series analysis, Bayesian models, and dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models. A combination of these tools offers the most reliable forecasts.

  1. Oil Futures Prices: Central banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) often rely on oil futures contract prices as a benchmark. These prices hinge on the interplay of supply and demand, coupled with market sentiment. Nevertheless, futures prices tend to introduce excessive variability into the current oil price, making them an imperfect predictor.
  2. Regression-Based Structural Models: Statistical algorithms evaluate the likelihood of specific oil price behaviors. Factors like events in OPEC member nations, inventory levels, production costs, and consumption patterns are considered. While these models possess robust predictive capabilities, they can falter due to omitted factors or unforeseen variables.
  3. Time-Series Analysis: Some economists employ time-series models, such as exponential smoothing and autoregressive models (including ARIMA and ARCH/GARCH), to mitigate the limitations of oil futures prices. These models analyze historical oil data to derive meaningful statistics and forecast future values based on past observations. While time-series analysis may occasionally err, it generally yields more accurate results over shorter timeframes.
  4. Bayesian Autoregressive Models: An enhancement to standard regression-based models involves incorporating calculations to assess the impact probability of anticipated events on oil prices. Contemporary economists often favor the Bayesian vector autoregressive (BVAR) model for oil price prediction.
  5. Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Graphs: Dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models leverage macroeconomic principles to elucidate intricate economic phenomena, including oil prices. The efficacy of DSGE models is contingent on the constancy of events and policies, as they draw from historical observations.

Industry Intelligence

To navigate the volatile oil market, timely and insightful information is indispensable. MarketWatch, Reuters Commodities Page, and CNBC provide real-time updates, breaking stories, and in-depth analyses, empowering investors and traders.


Crude oil's importance as an energy source and industrial cornerstone is undeniable. While environmental concerns loom, it remains a linchpin of the global economy, with any cessation of extraction causing economic stagnation. Crude oil's significance is paramount. It stands as a primary energy source, fueling heat generation and propelling diverse vehicles and machinery. Moreover, it serves as a fundamental ingredient in countless everyday products, encompassing plastics, paints, and cosmetics. Environmental apprehensions cast a shadow over its reputation. Nevertheless, a consensus emerges that the world remains heavily reliant on crude oil. The cessation of extraction and refining would precipitate a global economic standstill.

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