Introduction...The end of OPEC has been predicted on many occasions. The average life of cartels in the 20th century is 3.7 to 7.5 years. OPEC was founded September 1960. So, that makes it one of the very longest running cartels at 57 years.
Cracks have been developing…Though cracks have been developing in the cartel since the start of the current oil crisis, the group has managed to stay together so far. Nevertheless, the success of the current OPEC deal for production cuts will decide its future as a cartel.
OPEC’s success in boosting oil prices…Since its inception, OPEC has been fairly successful in boosting prices by various means. A few of the price increases, however, were due to reasons other than direct OPEC action, nevertheless benefitting their members.
Though the 1973 oil embargo was brought on by political reasons, OPEC used the production cuts of the embargo to boost oil prices from $3 a barrel in 1973 to $12 a barrel in 1974.
The 1979 energy crisis was not a brainchild of OPEC. The production dropped due to the Iran-Iraq war, and the price of oil doubled in about 12 months, again benefitting OPEC members.
What has OPEC done to support oil prices in the current oil crisis?
OPEC, as any cartel would, has used two strategies to influence oil prices. However, both have been unsuccessful in achieving their objectives.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of OPEC, attempted to stifle the competition of the shale oil drillers by keeping their production intact. As a result, oil prices plummeted to multi-year lows of about $27 a barrel in February 2016. The drop in oil prices saw 119 North American oil and gas producers file for bankruptcy from the beginning of 2015, according to Haynes and Boone, LLP.
U.S. oil production dropped about 883,000 barrels a day by August 2016, after topping out at 9.7 million barrels a day in April 2015. Nevertheless, the price decrease went well below OPEC’s expectations. Meanwhile, many shale oil drillers used a combination of better technology and hedging to continue pumping oil, despite the low prices.
As its first strategy failed to effect the U.S. shale oil production to the extent presumed, OPEC then adopted a second strategy of cutting production. On November 30, OPEC sealed a deal to cut production after months of difficult negotiation. Though prices bounced and broke out of the $52 levels – a strong resistance – they could not reach the $60 levels preferred by OPEC members.
However, this modest rally in crude oil prices rejuvenated the U.S. shale oil drillers, and U.S. oil production is now on the rise. As a result, crude oil has dipped again and is hovering near the $50 per barrel level.
The market believes that if crude oil prices remain above $50 per barrel, U.S. shale oil production will increase. For this reason, OPEC is finding itself in a catch-22 situation: It is losing market share to the U.S. shale oil drillers, but it is unable to propel prices considerably higher. It is losing its ability to influence prices above a certain level.
What happens if the Cartel fails in its objective?…A cartel is able to hold its members only when it fulfills their objective of higher prices, which has not been the case with OPEC. The member nations will now look to fulfill their objective by cheating and acting individually, according to their requirement.
Saudi Arabia, which was the leader of OPEC and the price setter of the world, is losing its clout in OPEC. Even in the current round of production cuts, most of the work is being done by Saudi Arabia, whereas the other members are shying away from their designated quotas.
In summary…OPEC has far outlived the average lifespan of a cartel, but if the OPEC members don’t regroup and act together, chances are that the cartel will come to an end very soon.
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Source: Rakesh Upadhyay, “The End Of OPEC Is Near,” Oilprice.com, 31 March 2017; “OPEC: Brief History, opec.org