OPEC - Not as Powerful as You Might Think

By Grossman, Peter Z | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

OPEC - Not as Powerful as You Might Think


Grossman, Peter Z, The Christian Science Monitor


Brazil's recent announcement that it might join OPEC reportedly produced a lot of hand-wringing among the experts. According to CNN, "analysts" feared that putting Brazil's big new oil finds under the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' banner would mean higher oil prices.

Just who are these "analysts?" Either they need remedial economics training, or they are grossly misinformed about how OPEC works.

First, in a petroleum-thirsty world, Brazil's oil discoveries are good news. Any Econ 101 student knows that when you increase the supply of something, the price goes down - not up. Not even OPEC can reverse the laws of supply and demand. Second, the possibility of Brazil's reserves falling under OPEC's rules aren't cause for alarm. If anything, a Brazilian seat at the OPEC table could mean greater stress for the cartel than it will for the rest of us.

But the analysts' fears seem to fit with the belief that OPEC has great and special power over us. This fear is irrational; I believe it's based on a misunderstanding of the causes and consequences of the gas lines of the 1970s. That episode made people think: If oil exporters can disrupt our lives once, then what's to stop them from doing it again? Surely not the normal rules of economics, maybe not even the laws of physics.

If they get a new member, or make any other significant change, the analysts seem to want to remind us: Be very afraid.

Actually, there is a way for OPEC to raise prices if Brazil, which right now exports no oil, joins the cartel. In fact, there's only one way: Everyone else in OPEC can cut production by more than the amount Brazil adds to it.

That is, to put it mildly, unlikely.

The OPEC countries are notable for the one-dimensional nature of their economies. Their wealth and well-being depend almost entirely on oil revenues. Even Saudi Arabia, which could cut its production, is unlikely to cut much or for long. It would be just too expensive.

Say Brazil eventually adds 1 million barrels per day to the world market. Just to keep prices from falling (much less rising), the Saudis would have to sacrifice about $35 billion a year in revenues. Even for Saudi oil sheikhs that's a lot of money. …

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