Saudi Arabia and its OPEC allies are stalling on threats to lower prices, apparently in hopes that they still can reach a deal with their rivals in the oil cartel to avoid a major price-cutting war, according to U.S. officials and industry executives.
Most industry sources said they expect a price cut of between $2 and $4 by the Saudis and their fellow Arab states on the Persian Gulf within the next month or two. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has made clear that it is tired of propping up prices single-handedly by slashing production while Iran, Libya and others have boosted output and revenues.
Ideally, the Saudis would like to avoid any price cut by forging an accord in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in which all members respect production ceilings and end price discounts. But this is considered unlikely given the disunity in the cartel.
Instead, the Saudis and their allies seem to be hoping they can reach an understanding in which they would lower their prices without triggering a round of price cuts by their foes in OPEC as well. Iran and the Saudis' other rivals would not like such a reduction but might tolerate it, given the current oversupply of oil, rather than see a full-scale price war.
"The pressures and chances for a price reduction are greater than they ever have been, but the gulf producers still are very reluctant to cut prices without an agreement," said a U.S. Energy Department oil specialist. "For now, they have adopted a wait-and-see attitude."
Some sources caution that the Saudis and their friends--Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar--may keep prices unchanged even if they cannot reach a deal with the rest of OPEC.
The gulf states may feel that they can ride out the current weakness in oil markets because demand is likely to revive later in 1983 after a normal drop at this time of year, the end of the winter heating season. Demand for OPEC oil is expected to remain stable for this year as a whole, ending three years of declines.
A senior executive at a major American oil company, who generally has been skeptical that prices would fall, said that chances of a price cut by the gulf states were "slightly better than 50-50."
The current slackness in world oil markets triggered price cuts of $1 to $2 a barrel last week by Egypt and the Soviet Union for their oil exports, and by U.S. oil companies for domestic crude. Prices also slid on the sensitive spot market--where oil is sold in individual cargoes rather than under long-term contracts--but trading has been thin in volume and mostly speculative.
A gulf state price cut would be welcomed in particular by most of Western Europe, Japan and non-oil-producing Third World countries, whose petroleum import bills could fall substantially, depending on how many other OPEC members and non-OPEC producers matched the decrease. U.S. dependence on OPEC oil is low enough so that a cartel-wide $4 price cut would lower gasoline prices at the pump here by only 1.2 cents a gallon, according to California-based industry analyst Dan Lundberg.
Expectations of a price reduction were fueled when OPEC's 13 members failed to reach agreement on a production and price package at meetings in December and January.
After the second meeting, in Geneva, Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani told reporters that the OPEC price of $34 a barrel might be too high. Since then, a price cut has been predicted by the United Arab Emirates' oil minister, the Kuwaiti news agency and the Cyprus-based newsletter Middle East Economic Survey, which is considered close to the Saudis.
The Kuwaiti agency dispatch suggested that the gulf states would reduce prices unilaterally this week, but it is not clear whether the Saudis and their allies would act without calling a new OPEC meeting. Saudi state radio warned a week ago against "over-hasty actions" on prices, and Venezuelan Energy Minister Humberto Calderon Berti, an experienced OPEC mediator, has suggested that OPEC as a whole would have to endorse a price cut.
OPEC is having trouble supporting prices primarily because its members, who depend on oil revenues for most of their income, would like to sell up to 4 million barrels a day more than the world needs. In the competition to boost output, markets have been saturated and prices trimmed to attract buyers.
"The trouble is that the pie is just too small," said a marketing analyst for a major U.S. oil company.
The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran particularly has weakened the cartel. Iran would like to surpass the Saudis as OPEC's largest producer, while the Saudis decided before the most recent meeting that they would not sacrifice further their share of the market, according to sources close to the two countries.
Iran in a year has tripled its production to more than 3 million barrels a day by offering its oil for $28 a barrel, or $6 less than the Saudis are asking for comparable oil on the other side of the Persian Gulf. The Saudis, to shore up the market, have reduced ouput by more than 50 percent in 18 months to about 4.5 million barrels a day.
This conflict on production--compounded by the political rivalry between the conservative Saudi monarchy and Iran's revolutionary Islamic government--portends a price war in which the Iranians would try to keep buyers by cutting prices by just as much as the Saudis.
But many analysts say that the cartel's members would patch together some kind of deal rather than suffer a downward spiral in prices that would hurt all of them. When prices seemed to be on the verge of collapse a year ago, OPEC pulled together and adopted a set of production ceilings that lasted long enough to stave off disaster.
"No matter how much disarray OPEC is in, if a major collapse appeared to be happening, then it just would make pure economic sense to do something," the Energy Department specialist said.
Analysts note that OPEC was close to a new agreement on production ceilings at last month's meeting. Yamani and the gulf states blocked an accord there by insisting on some changes in African prices, but the Saudis may have wanted to delay an agreement. According to this view, the gulf states' rivals may be more willing to cooperate on prices and production after worrying for awhile about the chance of a general price decline.
Some U.S. officials suggest that the Saudis may be promoting the notion that prices will fall to encourage oil companies to use up their petroleum inventories on the assumption that soon cheaper oil will be available. In this view, the Saudis are betting that the oil companies will have to resume buying during the spring, helping either to avoid a price cut or to guarantee that prices would drop only once.