OPEC, which has far exceeded the average life of cartels, is on the brink of failure. 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.
What is a cartel?
A cartel is a group of like-minded producers, who act in concert—or collusion—to achieve a shared goal of increasing their profits by means of restricting supply, fixing prices, or destroying their competition by illegal means. The average life of the 20th Century cartels has been 3.7 to 7.5 years, according to various studies by Margaret Levenstein and Valerie Suslow. In the past two centuries, cartels have been able to influence prices by an average of 25 percent.
History of 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. Related: These Fundamentals Point To Higher Oil Prices
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. Related: What Gold Can Tell You About Oil Prices
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.
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.
By Rakesh Upadhyay for Oilprice.com
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