For the first time in recent memory, as OPEC gets set for one of its meetings, the rest of the world doesn't have to cringe with fear. It doesn't have to wonder whether the "good guys" will have the upper hand, limiting a price increase to "only" 5 or 10 percent, or whether the "bad guys" will greedily squeeze consuming nations even harder.
Instead, as the cartel gathers for its May 25 session in Geneva, it is clear that OPEC cannot sell, at current market prices, all of the oil it is capable of producing. If lucky, OPEC will "freeze" prices for the time being. The more significant question at this point is whether the cartel can keep real prices from falling, even with some downward adjustment in production levels.
The best (and least publicized) economic news in a long time was last week's report that U.S. imports of crude oil fell 23 percent in April to the lowest level since 1973. Imports represented only 35 percent of domestic oil use. Just two years ago, imports were accounting for 45 percent of domestic consumption.
Middle East analyst Eliyahu Karnovsky said in an interview that barring another major political upheaval or revolution, he anticipates a decline in real prices that over time could be as much as the 25 percent drop that occurred from 1974 to 1978, prior to the Iranian revolution.
Others are more guarded. "We're seeing the pause that refreshes," oil expert Walter Levy told me by phone from London, "but it's not the millennium. The danger is that we may let down our guard. We have to keep up our efforts at conservation, and maintain mandatory requirements for conversion to non-oil kinds of energy."
Moreover, stability or a decline in oil prices could be wiped out quickly by new tensions in the Middle East. Responsive to that danger, the Reagan administration has correctly restored a high priority to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, even at the expense of off-budget deficit financing.
All cautions aside, the world does seem to be at a dramatic supply-demand turning point in which OPEC, rather than its customers, is on the defensive. As Levy suggests, the logical outcome at Geneva would be for the smaller producer nations to yield to pressure by Saudi Arabia to lower their base prices, now about $4 a barrel higher than the Saudi $32 level.
But emotions run high, and Geneva may produce a raucous squabble and no agreement. Given the present glut stimulated, by OPEC's extortionate pricing, sales by smaller producer nations will continue to shrink, while the Saudis supply cheaper oil at their heavy 10.3-million-barrel-a-day production rate.
As soon as the other OPEC producers face reality and cut their prices, Levy says, they can expect the Saudis to lower their production, perhaps to 8.5 million barrels a day, in an effort to stabilize the market near the Saudi price level. The game plan then would be to seek regular price increases to keep pace with inflation and future growth in world gross national product.
That's the grand design of Sheik Yamani, who realized belatedly that the 150 percent oil price shock of 1979-80 was excessive, significantly accelerating the world's effort to replace oil with other sources of energy. Yamani now knows he made a mistake in 1979, and that if this process is continued, it would leave Saudi Arabia, owner of the biggest oil reserves, holding the bag in the 21st century.
The Saudis could not slash production from 10.3 million to 6 million barrels a day "and live happily," as Yamani bluffed on American television. But Levy calculates that the Saudis could drop production 2 million barrels a day and maintain their economy in good shape, although sacrificing some accumulation of surplus cash reserves.
All along, the Saudis rationale for their production and pricing policy has been to force other OPEC countries to cut back high prices, which the Saudis see as a threat to the long-term value of their huge oil reserves. The Saudis policy has nothing to do with U.S. relationship, despite Saudi efforts to squeeze a political dividend from it.
Karnovsky, a Canadian-born U.S. citizen held in high respect by Reagan administration officials, notes the Libya isn't cutting off oil exports to the United States despite President Reagan's decision to toss its diplomats out of the country. He adds:
"These countries have rational leaders, and if you follow their oil policy, you see that it operates according to economic principles. That doesn't mean that political factors are unimportant. Political events have powerful impacts, but the thesis I'm trying to get across is that you're dealing with countries which basically are 'one-crop' economies, and they will remain that way for the foreseeable future."
I find it hard to resist a small cheer. OPEC's current dilemma may not be the millennium, but it is the best anti-inflation news in a long time. They've tucked it to us for so long, it's good to see them battling over who "eats" a decline in world sales volume.