VIENNA — OPEC’s stunning admission of major dissent within its ranks has left it reeling and its status as the world’s oil power-broker tarnished, perhaps beyond repair. But is a weakened cartel good or bad for consumers?
The major question is what will happen to oil prices in the long term as a newly strengthened Iran takes on traditional OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia in what some see as a proxy attack on the United States, the Saudis’ ally and Iran’s longtime foe.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which sells more than a third of the world’s crude, has commonly been seen as a price regulator, pumping more or less as it deemed fit and leading to complaints of price fixing from major consumers.
But market realities show a different picture — of an OPEC that has less impact on U.S. and other consumers than in previous decades. Even before Wednesday’s abortive OPEC session on whether to raise output, its members were breaking their quotas, putting an additional 1.5 million barrels of oil a day on the market.
That should have brought down prices. Instead, for weeks prices continued to hover around $100 per barrel. And news that OPEC was in trouble Wednesday resulted in a small upward blip reflecting a market focused more on supply and less on the group’s possible demise.
“There was a time when rumors of the break-up of OPEC would have sent the oil price plummeting,” said a Monument Securities research note. “But the realities of global supply and demand have been such … that OPEC has lost control over the crude oil market.”
OPEC’s role as a regulator of prices and supplies has been further weakened by the internal squabbling that characterized their latest meeting. National interests led to deadlock among the 12 OPEC nations, when Iran and others stymied a bid by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to increase output at a time of world economic weakness.
Rejecting a rise in output keeps oil prices high — about $101 on Thursday — not only filling Iran’s coffers with profits but possibly even kicking the legs out from under a feeble U.S. economic recovery.
Marco Ostwald of Monument Securities declared OPEC “on the point of break-up,” while a research note from Cameron Hanover said the Iran-led opposition to raising output was about “sticking it to the Saudis and psychologically sticking it to the US.”
For most OPEC members, common sense dictates that the cartel should at least try to work together, meaning there will be some fence-mending efforts in the coming months.
“I think there were some tensions,” said Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics. “But everyone has to do business and countries have different views on what the future of demand looks like.”
Still, the cartel will never be the same. Wednesday’s meeting exposed the bickering that OPEC nations usually are at pains to hide and shattered the image that OPEC is a monolith acting with a single will to squeeze an energy-hungry world.
Members clashed amid the challenges of Mideast unrest and a stubbornly weak world economy that cannot afford pricey crude but still needs more oil to spark an upswing.
Analysts with decades of attending OPEC meetings said they could not remember such a frank acknowledgment of deadlock from the secretive 51-year-old organization.
“There were meetings where OPEC could not come to an agreement on a change of policy, meetings where the wishes of Saudi Arabia were not met,” said Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix. “[But] we don’t recall a meeting that just split up … followed by all sorts of name calling.”
Breaking OPEC’s code of silence, Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi named participants opposed to the Saudi-led drive to lower prices by pumping more crude.
Calling Wednesday’s session “one of the worst meetings we’ve ever had,” he underscored the message that OPEC unity was dead — at least for now — and served notice that the Saudis will sell more oil alone if they have to.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia has long vied with Shiite-rule Iran for regional dominance and the two have often been at loggerheads over pricing. OPEC, however, usually falls in behind Saudi Arabia, which produces the lion’s share of OPEC output, but not this time.
Some OPEC leaders worry that civil wars in Libya and Yemen could spill over to their countries. Mindful of the overthrow of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s rulers, they welcome prices of $100 a barrel and above as a way to increase social spending and placate restive populations.
At the same time, OPEC is already overproducing well above its official quota of nearly 25 million barrels a day. Outside of the Saudis and their three Gulf allies, most members simply can’t raise output to around a daily 30 million barrels, as sought by Riyadh.
Tensions were also exacerbated by an invitation from Bahrain’s Sunni rulers for a Saudi-led Gulf force to help suppress unrest by Bahrain’s Shiite population, infuriating Iran.
Sunni-dominated Arab countries, in turn, fear gains by Bahrain’s Shiites could allow Iran to expand its influence.
The unprecedented standoff between the Saudi and Iran-led camps could herald an attempt by Tehran, the No. 2 OPEC producer, to challenge the Saudis for unofficial leadership of the organization.
That would mean trouble for the United States and other Western nations traditionally allied with the Saudis and at odds with Iran over its human rights record, alleged fomenting of terrorist activities and suspicions that Iran is interested in developing nuclear arms.
The gantlets have already been thrown, says Jakob of Petromatrix.
“Saudi Arabia now has no choice but to stay to its current program of increasing supplies,” he says. “If it does not, then it means that the new powerhouse in OPEC is Iran.”
George Jahn is at http://twitter.com/georgejahn