Does OPEC Run the World?

Last week, I appeared on CNBC’s Morning Call to discuss OPEC’s impact on the world oil market. On the show with me was Raymond Learsy, author of Over a Barrel: Breaking the Middle East Oil Cartel. Learsy argues that the OPEC cartel single-handedly sets the world price for crude oil, thoroughly manipulates petroleum markets and, presumably, fixes the World Series. I spent most of my time on the show qualifying those assertions. (If you want to watch the five-minute exchange for yourself, click here.)

Well, yesterday, Learsy posted over at “The Huffington Post” (where he’s something of a regular) and decided to initiate Round 2. OK, I’m game — not just because I hate letting someone else get the last word, but because the issues in play are quite interesting.

Let’s consider Learsy’s arguments in turn: 

First, he contends that OPEC sets price. Well, as I noted on the show last week, that’s not quite right. The cartel does not set price; it imposes production limitations on its members (theoretically, anyway). Price is established in world spot markets, where Mr. Supply and Ms. Demand come together to do the voodoo that they do so well. OPEC has a lot of say over the former (OPEC nations produce about 40 percent of global supply) but little say over the latter. OPEC nations certainly influence price, but they do not set price. 

Since Learsy is a former commodities trader, I assume he knows this as well as I do, so it’s a mystery to me why he insists on making this “OPEC sets price” claim. After all, if you believe that OPEC sets world crude oil prices, then you have to come up with some explanation for why OPEC set the price at $10 a barrel back in 1998–1999. Were the oil sheiks simply in a kind and generous mood? Were they so enamored of Bill Clinton that they decided to send him an economic love note? Did they get so thoroughly drunk over the course of several months that they had no idea what was going on in market? Similarly, why did OPEC’s ministers cut prices from $70 a barrel to $50 a barrel a few months back? Did they take a collective happy pill?

When I made those points on the show, Learsy shifted gears from “OPEC sets price” to “Big Oil sets price.” Well, beyond the fact that it can’t be both, he backed up this contention with the observation that British Petroleum is currently under investigation for manipulating the California oil market. With all the money and influence these big oil producers have, Learsy asked, “who says the exchanges are free of any kind of manipulation?” 

Well, one can’t prove a negative, so I’m not going to try. The right question to ask is, “What evidence do we have that oil markets are being systematically manipulated?” After all, by my count, there are 37 major oil futures markets, “over the counter” markets, and physical oil markets across the globe, all of which are quite transparent with thousands of well-informed buyers and sellers. Investigations of “Big Oil” and their market practices have been an around-the-clock phenomenon since the 1970s, so the fact that BP is currently under investigation in the state of California (land of business investigations) does not in itself suggest that there is fire to be found amongst the political smoke. 

Question: How many government investigations of “Big Oil” for price manipulation have been undertaken over the past three decades? Answer: At least 30 that I’m aware of, but that’s almost certainly an undercount. Question: How many government investigations of “Big Oil” have found any one of these major companies guilty of price manipulation? Answer: None. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not going on. But it does mean that there’s no evidence to suggest that it is. Once you combine that with a functional knowledge of how the oil market actually works, you can’t help but conclude that manipulation is a figment of the imagination.  Markets — believe it or not — sometime produce price increases, especially when instability rocks oil producing regions.

In sum, Learsy can believe what he wants. But belief without evidence is called faith, and organized faith is called religion.

The more interesting discussion, however, is whether OPEC even influences (much less “sets”) oil prices. I’m inclined to think that it does. After all, the whole point of the cartel is to collude with regards to production. As long as this collusion reduces production by more than zero, it will affect market prices.

But does it? The best evidence for that proposition comes from economists Robert Kaufmann, Stephane Dees, Pavlos Karadeloglou, and Marcelo Sanchez. In their 2004 paper “Does OPEC Matter? An Econometric Analysis of Oil Prices,” published in The Energy Journal, they examine quarterly data from the third quarter of 1986 to the third quarter of 2000 and find a statistically significant relationship between real crude oil prices, OPEC capacity utilization, OPEC quotas, the degree to which OPEC exceeds those production quotas, and OECD oil stocks. According to most laymen, this probably qualifies for a cover story in “Duh!” magazine.

But not so fast! The evidence forwarded by Kaufman et al. does not settle the matter. After all, Learsy’s case is that the cartel delivers less oil to the market than would be the case if the cartel did not exist — which is, after all, the very definition of the claim that “OPEC sets/influences oil prices.” That’s a tricky matter to establish because we can only guess what production levels would be absent the cartel. Economist James Smith noted in 2005, “Despite a strong consensus among experts and laymen alike that OPEC operates as a cartel, very little conclusive statistical evidence of collusive behavior has appeared in the economics literature to date.” His 2005 paper ”Inscrutable OPEC? Behavioral Tests of the Cartel Hypothesis,” likewise published in The Energy Journal, comes closest to answering the question. His econometric investigation of monthly OPEC production data from January 1973 to December 2001 finds strong evidence that OPEC “acts as a bureaucratic syndicate; i.e., a cartel weighed down by the cost of forging and enforcing consensus among its members, and therefore [is] partially impaired in pursuit of the common good.” 

OK, we’ve now found empirical reason to believe that OPEC is indeed the clumsy economic cartel that oil economists long suspected. But that doesn’t tell us whether this cartel succeeds in its mission or not. As Smith writes: 

This paper has examined the conduct of members of an alleged cartel, not the performance of the cartel itself. Any conclusions regarding the effectiveness of OPEC’s cooperative actions, or the organization’s impact on market prices and member profits, is beyond the scope of this research. A cartel’s actions may be in vain if it lacks either the information base to anticipate, or the operating flexibility to respond to market forces. Whether the rewards reaped by OPEC have actually gone beyond what one could expect of a non-cooperative oligopoly is not clear. That part of the question remains. 

Like Learsy, I suspect that the cartel produces some net economic benefit for its members. That is, I suspect that the cartel serves to increase prices above where they would be absent the cartel. But I don’t KNOW that. And if you think countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Kuwait, and the UAE have a significant amount of unilateral power in world crude oil markets given their large reserves and low production costs, then it’s perfectly reasonable to suspect that formalized collusion in the form of a cartel is not the root of the (price) problem.

A Serious Matter

The Washington Post deserves a lot of credit for publishing this piece on its editorial page today. An anonymous businessman explains his predicament after having been served with an FBI “national security letter”:

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand — a context that the FBI still won’t let me discuss publicly — I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

(For background on national security letters, go here). 

This businessman has given us a sneak preview of life in the surveillance state. I’ve tried to draw attention to the conscription aspect of anti-terrorism laws and policies, but conservatives don’t want to talk about it. The ACLU has gotten involved in the gag order/free speech aspect, but the conscription gets tossed aside in a cacophony. 

President Bush insists that he is ”defending freedom.” John Yoo and Eric Posner advance the view that the sphere of liberty has been expanding over the years. Other conservatives see the impact on liberty but strangely taunt: “The government has already been doing that! If Bush wants to take it further, what’s the big deal? This is no time to rethink legal precedent.”

Robert Higgs, among many others, has showed that liberty has been losing ground to government over the years. Since 9/11, we have been in a vicious political cycle. The courts are defending constitutional liberties at the margins, but the overall trend is quite bad. A few months ago, some U.S. senators voted to enact a law that they believed to be unconstitutional. That’s an indication of the political climate. Bad.

Tipping Point for School Choice in AZ?

The Arizona Republic gave an unqualified endorsement of school choice today, coupled with a stinging rebuke of the state Education-Industrial Complex, also known as “Big Ed” (yes, I will continue repeating this gimmicky label) for challenging this and other school choice laws in court.

It’s difficult to pick just one quote, but their opening will do nicely:

Of all Arizona’s attempts over the years to provide education options for poor students, the law allowing corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar credit on their taxes is the best-structured reform effort so far.

And they pull no punches on Big Ed:

Despite the indisputable value it provides students and their parents — that of real education options — the program’s opponents have gone to court against it and other education-choice programs . …  It would be a shame to see such programs flounder on the specious fear that if you give vouchers to disabled kids, or to kids at the rocky bottom of life’s well, that public education itself will crumble. Simply put, it won’t. Education choice strengthens the underlying system. Someday, with luck, opponents of reform will figure that out.

The Arizona Republic is fearful that the voucher programs for disabled and foster children might have a tougher battle in court. But they rightly recognize that the challenge to the business tax credit program is desperate, bordering on completely absurd:

Earlier this month, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the corporate tuition tax credit program was “legally indistinguishable” from existing tax-credit programs, and so passes the same constitutional muster.

Huzzah to the editorial board at the Arizona Republic, and congratulations to all of the Arizona organizations who have put their state at the front of the march to educational freedom. Don’t let up.

Fewer Uninsured!

The Census Bureau just released a revised estimate of the number of Americans who lack health insurance:

The revised estimates show that, in 2005, 44.8 million people, 15.3 percent of the population, were without health insurance — about 1.8 million fewer than the Census Bureau reported in August 2006. Based on the Current Population Survey, the original 2005 estimate was 46.6 million, or about 15.9 percent of the population… . Conversely, an estimated 249 million Americans had coverage, up from the 247.3 million reported in August.

I think I speak for the entire health policy community when I say:

It is important that we not over-react to these numbers. The worst thing we could do would be to stop panicking about the uninsured. A lot of interest groups have spent a lot of money and misused a lot of data to convince the public that this mostly healthy bunch of people are America’s #1 health care problem. If we were to go off-message now, then Barack, Hillary, Mitt, Arnold, and all the other Chicken Littles we’ve created … well, they might get horribly confused. Thank you for your continued support.

In Praise of Administrative Costs

Advocates of socialized medicine, such as Physicians for a National Health Program, love to argue that America’s health care sector is less efficient than socialized systems because private insurers appear to have higher administrative costs. In yesterday’s New York Times, Tyler Cowen reveals the flaw in that logic:

The monitoring, marketing and overhead costs of private insurance are what allow more expensive medical treatments through the door. It is precisely because competing insurance companies spend money evaluating the appropriateness of claims that they are willing to pay for so many heart bypasses, extra tests, private hospital rooms and CT scans.

If European health care systems appear to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, they limit the overall amount they will spend on medical services. Of course, that just means they shift costs to patients who either must pay for medical services themselves, or deal with the costs of waiting.

If the U.S. Medicare program appears to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, Medicare just shovels money out the door. That merely shifts those costs onto taxpayers by driving up Medicare spending and taxes. 

In Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, Cato adjunct David Hyman delights in the irony that medicine-socializers praise one of Medicare’s greatest failings (inadequate oversight of claims payment) as if it were a virtue.

The Real College Sports Madness

Tonight the mighty Hoyas of Georgetown University will square-off against the Vanderbilt Commodores in a Sweet 16 hoops tilt.

In light of Georgetown’s dominance this season (28-6 overall, winners of 17 of their last 18, champions of the Big East Conference, and easy victors over the Commodores back in November), it’s probably a bit cruel to make Vandy face the Hoyas again. At least in the big picture, though, this is a fair match-up: both teams are from relatively small, private schools with pretty high academic standards, and both rely on voluntary fan and booster support to compete.

Unfortunately, a bit of breaking college basketball news on ESPN.com yesterday demonstrates that the latter is not always the case. The story was about Steve Alford leaving his head coaching job at the University of Iowa to take the reins at the University of New Mexico, a move many college hoops fans consider a bit of a step down. Iowa, after all, plays in the powerful Big Ten Conference, while New Mexico toils in the lesser Mountain West. So what was Alford’s inducement to trade corn for sand?

One possibility is that Alford was on his way out of Iowa anyway. He had only three NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons there, and not every Iowa fan exactly loved him. But, important as this might have been in Alford’s decision, it wasn’t what ESPN said ultimately attracted him to Albuquerque (it also wasn’t the city’s famed petroglyphs):

Sources said Alford was thrilled with the commitment from recently hired New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs and impressed by the university’s decision to upgrade the famed Pit, which, according to Krebs, will receive $12 million from state government for renovation. There also is hope that the figure could rise to $20 million. [Italics added]

Now, as a matter of principle, I’m against forcing taxpayers to fund entertainment venues, arenas, or any of the other “bread and circuses” projects on which politicians love to lavish public dollars. But what really makes me angry about public schools like UNM building new basketball arenas with taxpayer funds is the unfair advantage it gives those schools over little private schools like Georgetown and Vanderbilt, who need people to give them money voluntarily. Facilities have been an especially big problem at GU, where the on-campus gym seats at-most 2,500 people, forcing the team to play almost all of its home games at the downtown Verizon Center and lose lots of revenue in rent.

Of course, UNM is not the only public university where the sports teams benefit from forced taxpayer largesse. Last May, for instance, the State of Minnesota decided to pay $10.25 million per-year for 25 years to help finance a new U of M football stadium. Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center, where the school’s basketball teams play, was financed with $10 million from the couple after whom it was named and $53 million from state taxpayers who, as always, have remained nameless. 

Now, colleges and universities in general — both public and private — benefit from all kinds of tax breaks, pork projects, and government subsidies, so don’t feel too sorry for Georgetown and Vanderbilt. When it comes to big-time sports, though, recognize what private schools are up against, and perhaps root for them a little harder. And, come to think of it, maybe do feel sorry for Vanderbilt. Georgetown is going to crush them tonight.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Neal McCluskey in a Georgetown graduate and a huge Hoya fan.)