Blame OPEC? Not So Fast!

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson blames OPEC for the 2003-2008 oil price spiral in an arresting column titled OPEC’s Triumph. Color me skeptical.

Samuelson says that the beginning of the price surge can be traced back to early 1999, when oil prices were around $10 a barrel. OPEC and major non-OPEC producers in Norway, Mexico, and Russia jointly agreed to “cut production sharply,” Samuelson reports, and subsequent compliance with those output quotas was “surprisingly good.”

Well, let’s go to the data (specifically, data from the Energy Information Administration found here and here). In 1998, oil production in OPEC (minus Angola) plus the “Big Three” non-OPEC members mentioned by Samuelson was on average 43.6 million barrels per day (mbd). In 1999, aggregated production from those parties did indeed drop by about 1 mbd, but in 2000, production from the same shot up by 2.5 mbd and remained steady in 2001 (45 mbd). Production in 2002 dropped by about 1.5 mbd, but then jumped by 2.6 mbd in 2003; 3 mbd in 2004, and 1.4 mbd in 2005 before dropping back by 0.5 mbd in 2006.

So at best, we have some evidence that the producer agreement flagged by Samuelson had the desired effect in 1999 – if not necessarily thereafter. But even that’s unclear. Oil markets were so soft in 1999 that plenty of “non-conspirators” cut oil production that year as well. Canada, for instance, went from 2.7 mbd in 1998 to 2.63 mbd in 1999 before jumping back up to 2.75 mbd in 2000. The United States exhibits the same pattern; 9.28 mbd in 1998, 8.99 mbd in 1999, and 9.06 mbd in 2000. Many smaller “price takers” unaffiliated with any cartel made the same production decisions. Australia, for instance, went from 649,000 barrels a day (bd) in 1998 to 647,000 bd in 1999 and 828,000 bd in 2000.

If post-1999 OPEC decisions were truly constraining global crude oil supply, we should see an increasing amount of unused production capacity lying idle in those countries. But we don’t. While the true amount of unutilized production capacity is hard to estimate confidently, industry watchers seem to agree that it is going down, not up. Producers don’t seem to be holding any light crude oil back at all (the most valuable kind to the market) and what they are holding back (very heavy sour crudes) is hard to sell. That doesn’t square with a story about how recent decision-making by OPEC is responsible for starving the market and inflating price.

If OPEC is to blame for all of this, the blame rests on cartel members who haven’t invested as much in production capacity as they might have absent membership in the same. But it takes a long time for investment in new production capacity to yield substantial amounts of crude oil – sometimes as much as 8-10 years. And given the prices of a decade ago (the lowest inflation adjusted prices in recorded history), it’s hard to blame the cartel for a lack of investment from 1999-2003. Even non-cartel members were uninterested in substantial investments in production capacity back then.

Now, none of this is to rule out Samuelson’s hypothesis out of hand. Production costs are so low in OPEC (they are widely thought to be less than $5.00 a barrel in Saudi Arabia), that one could argue that any profit maximizing economic actor not caught up in price-fixing operations would have invested a lot more money in production capacity than we’ve seen in the Persian Gulf to-date. But there are alternative explanations out there for this lack of investment. Maybe “cheap oil” is indeed running out. Maybe domestic political considerations are frustrating investments (these are state-owned oil companies after all). Maybe marginal production costs outside of Saudi Arabia are a lot steeper than many analysts realize. Maybe it’s not the cartel per se that’s constraining production; maybe it’s the unilateral exercise of Saudi market power under the cartel’s cover that’s to blame. It’s worth noting that academics have studied OPEC for decades and are still unable to find hard evidence that the cartel has indeed given us higher crude oil prices than would have been given us in an alternative world without OPEC.

Interestingly enough, the chief source for Samuelson’s column – oil economist Philip Verleger – doesn’t buy Samuelson’s argument. Verleger thinks that the increasing demand for oil securities as a hedge against volatility in equity markets and the weakening dollar explains the bulk of the price run-up between 2003-2007 and that the United States government – via its insane buy-orders for the SPR – is largely responsible for the near-doubling of oil prices since last August.

There are, of course, alternative explanations out there, but none of them fit comfortably with the data. And that’s what makes oil markets so interesting to watch these days – nobody can be completely sure exactly what is going on. Samuelson’s explanation, however, is somewhat less convincing than most.