THERE CAN BE little doubt that the sudden and substantial increase in the price of oil has given rise to some real and important problems for many countries and for the world economy as a whole. For more than half a century prior to 1973, the world economy was used to and based on the assumption of cheap energy. The changes that occurred during the 1970s have destroyed that assumption. Now the world economy is in the throes of adjustment to the new situation. Like any other adjustment, it involves some painful decisions. It is decidedly in the interest of all concerned to search for solutions and arrangements that would minimize the cost of adjustment and alleviate the burden on those least capable of carrying it.
In his Outlook article of March 16, Peter G. Peterson has made a contribution in that direction. As a member of the Brandt Commission and as one with extensive experience in international financial and development issues, Peterson is eminently qualified for the task. He proposed an international conference of developed, developing and oil-exporting countries, with an agenda limited to oil and related issues, to work out a "concordat" -- a package agreement covering oil supplies and prices, conservation measures and major investments in energy, exploration and development in the developing countries.
Peterson's ideas are worthy of the most careful consideration. It is hoped that the following observations will clarify some of the principal issues involved:
1. The idea of an international conference limited to petroleum has little chance of success. The oil-exporting countries would be reluctant to see their product, out of all the products moving in international trade, singled out for a "concordat" that would limit their freedom of action with respect to supplies and prices. Their position on this point is not different from that of other countries. Copper, rubber or tin producers, to mention a few important commodities, would not submit to an international regime that would impose restrictions on their ability to formulate pricing and output policies on the basis of their national self-interest. Similarly, the United States, Canada, Australia or Argentina, the major wheat producers, would certainly reject out of hand such an approach to wheat production and prices. It is not clear why oil producers should be expected to accept a formula that is not applicable to other products and commodities. If Peterson's idea is to be accepted, it should be part of a more general approach to the major internationally traded commodities.
2. The oil conference of the type proposed by Peterson would be of primary benefit to the developed countries and a very limited number of developing countries. It should be realized that the great bulk of internationally traded oil is imported by the developed countries. Out of a total trade of about 30 million barrels a day, developed countries account for 26 million barrels or 86 percent, leaving 4 million barrels for imports by developing countries. Moreover, oil imports by developing countries are very unevenly distributed. Twelve developing countries account for as much as 78 percent of those 4 billion barrels. On the other hand, as many as 45 developing countries, including most of the African and least developed countries, do not import more than 5.6 percent of those 4 million barrels. Thus, while the oil import bill is a real problem for countries such as Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, India, Yugoslavia, the Philippines and a few others, it is hardly so for the vast majority of developing countries. They are interested in a wide range of trade and aid issues. This was the basic consideration underlying the agenda of the Conference on International Economic Cooperation and it remains valid for any future North-South dialogue. Oil would constitute only one item among many others on the agenda. Peterson is rightly aware of the difficulties raised by a conference with such a wide-ranging agenda. But, given the proper political will, such difficulties are not insurmountable. Moreover, a broad agenda would creat possibilities of give and take for all countries involved, which is essential for the ultimate success of the conference.
3. Increased security of oil supplies is an issue of legitimate concern to all the oil-importing countries, developing as well as developed. It should be recognized, however, that the oil surplus countries are currently producing at levels far in excess of their current consumption and investment requirements. Moreover, oil is a depletable resource. At the current output levels, the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia, the most richly endowed among the surplus countries, would run out in about 43 years. In the case of other surplus countries , the depletion horizon is nearer. At the same time, the financial assets of these countries are being eroded by high rates of inflation. Under these conditions a barrel of oil in the ground could very well be more advantageous to them than its money worth in the bank. To maintain outputs at current levels for a period sufficiently long to permit significant adjustments, it is obviously not enough to appeal to the sense of responsibility and international solidarity on the part of oil producers. Beyond a certain point, oil countries cannot be expected to act against their own national self-interest. Concrete action has to be taken to make it economically more attractive to produce the extra barrel then to keep it in the ground. This will call for far-reaching changes, not only in the laws and regulations governing foreign investment but, no less improtant, in the political attitudes toward such investments. It is patently irrational to ask the surplus countries to maintain oil output at levels far above their current needs, and at the same time make it difficult for them to invest their surplus funds in equity and real estate assets as a hedge against inflation.