A key crude oil benchmark -- dated Brent crude -- has tumbled to record lows against Brent crude futures. The difference between the two prices is now unprecedented, at more than $10 a barrel. That indicates that the market's short-term outlook for oil companies like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B) is worse than their long-term hopes for the industry.

This comes as Brent futures have been boosted by an upcoming meeting between President Trump and oil industry leaders, and news that China plans to buy oil to fill its strategic reserves, which have given investors hope that oil prices may eventually rise. 

An oil export terminal.

Image source: Getty Images.

Dated Brent: what it means

Brent crude is the main international oil benchmark, and refers to the price of a barrel of blended light sweet North Sea crude oil. Dated Brent refers specifically to the trading price for a barrel of Brent crude with a delivery date of between 10 days and one month in the future. This is different from the Brent crude futures price, which is the trading price for a barrel of Brent crude with a delivery date of up to nine years in the future. 

In other words, dated Brent reflects the market's very near-term outlook for oil prices, while Brent futures reflect a longer-term outlook.

After the market closed on Wednesday, the dated Brent price was pegged at $15.14 a barrel, while Brent futures settled to $24.74 a barrel. This morning, Brent futures rose 13%, bringing the differential between Brent futures and dated Brent into double-digit territory, although that may ease by the time dated Brent prices are calculated after market close today. 

In the year leading up to March 2020, dated Brent hadn't traded more than $1.50/barrel below the Brent futures price.