LONDON -- Fear of the future has sent oil prices soaring again. The energy crisis of 1990 is not the result of a physical shortage of crude oil but of psychology and a global premonition that Murphy's Law applies to the oil business in spades: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
Murphy seemed to be in charge in 1973 and 1979, when oil and Middle East politics mixed and exploded like a binary weapon -- cutting supplies, forcing prices up and bringing economic hardship for most of the world.
But this crunch is different. It spotlights the political and economic behavior of the consumer far more than did those previous bouts of oil delirium. It may therefore offer an opportunity to bring stability to a vital global industry wracked by boom-and-bust cycles since Western oil companies lost control of Middle East oil production two decades ago.
That hope was expressed here this week by two of the war horses of energy crises past: Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia and James Schlesinger, secretary of defense during the 1973 Arab embargo and secretary of energy in the Carter administration. Speaking at a London conference organized by Yamani, both men called for dialogue and conciliation by energy producers and consumers once the immediate problems caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have been resolved.
The cordiality and optimism shown by Yamani and Schlesinger may simply reflect the fact that both men are out of power and no longer need to defend the empires they once commanded. But my sense after listening to them and other government and business leaders debate the topic of oil for two days is that the world has learned some lessons about damage control from past confrontations.
The fashioning of a new oil order depends to a great extent of course on how this very different confrontation in the Persian Gulf is resolved. Unlike 1973 and 1979 -- when producers shut in supplies -- the present turmoil in oil markets was triggered by consumer nations, which are refusing to buy the 4 million barrels a day of oil being produced by Iraq and Kuwait before the Aug. 2 invasion.
To help out consumers (and their own treasuries), Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates are producing as much extra oil as they can, a total of about 3 million barrels a day. The net economic effect is to wipe out the 1 million barrels a day of excess production that OPEC members were putting on the market in July. The surplus production held the benchmark price for crude oil at $18 a barrel.
Today, supply and demand are in a rare state of equilibrium, with producers putting just enough oil on the market to satisfy demand. Why then have prices doubled over the past eight weeks, a feat that took eight months after the Iranian revolution began in 1979? Gouging certainly exists, but it seems to have played a relatively minor part in this price squeeze so far. A big part of the answer seems to be that oil companies and producers see the Western oil consumer as an economically irrational animal in the short term who turns into a supremely rational being over the long haul.
Yamani points out that in the previous two oil shortages, consumption actually went up during the crisis period. Concerned about being caught short, motorists topped off their tanks. Typically, instead of changing their behavior at a moment of crisis to conserve gasoline, consumers go on paying whatever new price is demanded and using at least as much gas as they did before.
The same reflex causes oil companies and governments to hoard stockpiles rather than releasing them to moderate prices. The fear of shortages tomorrow drives the price increases of today. Stockpiles are currently at 99 days of global consumption, 3.2 billion barrels, two to three times the level of reserves held at the beginning of the 1973 and 1979 crises.
Over the long term, higher energy prices do cause economic behavioral changes by consumers, who switch to higher-mileage vehicles and more efficient furnaces and industrial machinery when price increases are sustained. Consumption then falls rapidly and, as OPEC found out both in the mid-'70s and '80s, prices plummet like a stone.
This is what will happen once this Persian Gulf crisis is over, Yamani says, unless the current prices can be brought under control. He advocates a three-step program for the duration of the confrontation: a gradual running down of stockpiles by companies and governments, a temporary halt by importing governments on higher gasoline taxes and the inflationary effect they would bring, and a commitment by governments not to impose rationing or other economic restrictions on oil that would cause panic and increased consumption. This could bring prices back down in the $20 range.
Yamani, who was the dominant figure in the OPEC cartel before he was abruptly fired as oil minister by the Saudi royal family in 1986, is beginning to reemerge into the public eye after four years of self-imposed obscurity and silence. Here in London he was as articulate, courtly and sleek as he was when he ruled over oil policy in Riyadh. He is not a man, as was widely assumed four years ago, whose future is behind him. His return to the international scene and his calls for moderation by oil producers and importers provide good news for consumers caught in the cross-fires of the oil wars.