After the oil-producing countries formed a cartel and sent oil prices soaring upward in 1973, some economic forecasters waited for the next shoe to drop.
What commodity would be next? Bauxite? Copper? Tin, bananas, rubber?
Five years later, no powerful new cartel has emerged. But members of the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC) have indicated that if they are unable to negotiate an international agreement on rubber prices this year with the large buyers, the producing countries may try to drive prices up by regulating exports and production.
Potentially, Malaysia is the world's rubber "superpower." It produces nearly half the total annual world output of 3.6 million metric tons. Malaysia's representatives have been leading efforts at international talks in Geneva to work out a price deal with the industrial countries.
Malaysia wants an arrangement guaranteeing a minimum rubber price that would rise in step with inflation and other global economic developments.
Malaysia's bargaining power has been stengthened by rising costs and shortages of oil-based feedstocks for making synthetic rubber. There is little likelihood, however, that Malaysia could ever dictate world rubber prices the way Saudi Arbia can almost unilaterally determine the price of oil.
For one thing, Malaysia's 500,000 smallholders would be the first to suffer from any deliberate cutback in rubber production for the purpose of squeezing world markets.
These small rubber holdings support some 3 million rural people, one quarter of the country's entire population. Most of those rubber smallholders are Malays, who from the base of political support for the Malay-dominated National Front government in this tricommunal society of Malays, Chinese and Indians.
Second, if natural rubber prices are pushed too high, a faster switch to sythetic (which already outsells natural rubber by a two-to-one margin) could take place. A World Bank study predicts that global synthetic rubber production capacity will increase 22 percent between 1976 and 1981.
Rubber is different from most agricultural commodities in that production is fairly constant. It is a year-round crop not subject to harvest failure. Price fluctuations tend to be caused not by changes in the supply but by the unpredictable requirements of industrial nations. These change with recessions and slumps in auto sales.
Natural rubber prices hit 60 cents a pound after the 1973 oil embargo, then plunged to 20 cents a pound in the 1974 recession before climbing back to more than 50 cents a pound last fall.
These shifts raise havoc with the Malaysian economy and budget, which depend on taxes from rubber producers and exporters. Rubber export duties brought Malaysia $25 million in 1972, $100 million in 1973 and $25 million in the recession year of 1974.
The Carter administration favors an international buyer-seller agreement for rubber. The administration proposes stabilizing prices with the aid of a 700,000-ton buffer stockpile.It opposes fixed floor and ceiling prices and is against trade controls, such as export quotas, however.
U.S. officials say chances for an agreement on rubber probably are better than for any of the 17 other commodities on a United Nations working list.
The government is at odds with the major U.S. tire and rubber companies which have gone on record opposing an agreement. The companies' position is that any interference with the "free market" is undesirable.
Goodyear Chairman Charles J. Pilliod Jr. recently said that the U.S. government policy on rubber appears to "support cartels abroad."
"The Malaysian government doesn't want price stability," said another Akron executive. "The Malaysian government wants high prices."
The companies' objections are practical as well as ideological.
None of them grows enough rubber on its own plantations to supply all it needs. So all the multinationals cover some of their requirements in the open Asian markets where, as the largest customers, they exert influence on prices.
Company opposition to a scheme to stabilize prices may not be as unified as it appears, however.
Uniroyal, which comes closest to being self-sufficient, has been diplomatically reserved. Some of its largest holdings are in Malaysia, where the government would take offense at any outspoken opposition.
Goodyear has large plantations on its own and access to additional rubber through long-term agreements with Asian millers. Some officials say privately the company could gain from an agreement that fixed high, stable prices.
Some diplomats and economic specialists think. a future union between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the rubber producers is conceivable, fusing the organizations which produce the two basic raw materials for tires.
Indonesia is a member of both groups and both are dominated by Moslem countries.
On the other hand, other experts feel the two groups are more likely to become competitors than allies.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait may decide to establish their own synthetic rubber and tire indutries someday. That would work against Malaysia's own hopes of becoming a major tire producer utilizing its own domestic rubber.