The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is in disarray. The price of Brent crude fell to less than $38 a barrel on Friday, the lowest since 2008. If the cartel had been working, it would be cutting output to force prices back up. Its members chose to keep pumping.
Why? Because just as demand from emerging markets is slowing, technology has changed the economics of oil. That's bad news for OPEC, but good news for everybody else -- especially if the U.S. government and others have the wit to kick OPEC while it's down.
The U.S. shale-oil revolution has greatly increased non-OPEC supply. At the same time, efforts to curb oil consumption as part of the fight against climate change are further limiting the cartel's power to set prices. Oil prices are notoriously hard to predict, but these forces aren't going away, and they mean that OPEC's troubles may not be temporary.
Shed no tears. If the cartel collapsed altogether, there'd be no need to reinvent it. Meanwhile, OPEC's weakness presents an opportunity -- and smart policy can make the most of it.
Cheap oil will directly boost growth in most of the world, but with side effects that need to be managed. The fall in oil prices will encourage oil consumption, both in the short term (people will use their cars more) and long term (they'll buy cars that are less fuel-efficient). This works against reducing carbon emissions, and over time could help to restore OPEC's market power. Later, if prices bounce back, the economic hit would be disruptive.
The answer is for governments to smooth prices by adjusting the tax on fuel. When prices are low, like now, a higher gas tax would barely be noticed. Almost painlessly, it would raise revenues to pay for tax cuts elsewhere -- while maintaining the incentive for energy efficiency and keeping OPEC on its heels. If and when prices go back up, governments can soften the blow to their economies by lowering the tax.
Those are reasonable points but the big variable with crude oil or any other commodity is always supply. Saudi Arabia is predictably calling the shots and it is hard to see any better outcome for them, or any other oil exporters, than Pyrrhic victories.
The financial humbling of Saudi Arabia and other large, low cost oil exporters has been caused by the march of technology. Arguably, these inventions are mankind’s greatest achievements but new technologies do create an ‘adapt or die’ commercial reality for all of us.
Few predominantly oil exporting countries have shown any capacity to adapt, to date, but developed countries will not escape their problems. While we benefit from lower oil prices, we are losing their demand for Western goods, admittedly, mostly weapons and luxury products. Additionally, turmoil within failing oil states will not be confined to their borders, as we are already seeing.Back to top