Nigeria's break with the rest of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in unilaterally lowering its oil prices yesterday has caused market analysts to debate whether a price-cutting war will erupt within the cartel.
Presidential oil adviser Yahaya Dikko sounded a conciliatory theme in announcing the $5.50-a-barrel reduction, saying Nigeria "hopes that recent actions have shown the need to resume a dialogue within OPEC and the need to begin discussions with non-OPEC oil exporters."
But other members of the 13-nation cartel already had warned that unilateral pricing moves could bring serious consequences, and it is unclear whether the deeply divided organization can lower prices in a framework that would avert a ruinous competition to attract buyers.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a meeting that included four OPEC members was believed to have considered their response to the Nigerian action, but it ended with no announcement, The Associated Press reported.
Newspapers in the Persian Gulf headlined an impending "price war" in reporting the Nigerian move. Bahrain's daily Akhbar al Khaleej charged that Nigeria was "contemplating a pullout from OPEC."
Kuwaiti Minister of State Abdul Aziz Hussein, when asked whether his country planned a price cut to match Nigeria's, said, "We will act in such a manner as to preserve our rights." Another Kuwaiti spokesman predicted a decision "within days."
In Washington, a U.S. official who monitors oil markets had said Friday that the gulf states led by Saudi Arabia might hold off any action for a week or two to study the reaction to the Nigerian price cut and hold talks seeking an OPEC-wide agreement.
Nigeria, heretofore a steadfast OPEC loyalist, has faced a severe financial crunch since December. Its oil exports plunged when customers began switching to cheaper North Sea oil. Even before the British cut their price Friday, their oil was $2 under Nigeria's for comparable light, low-sulfur crudes.
Fellow OPEC members Libya, Iran and Venezuela also have contributed to the present oil glut and undermined Nigeria's market position by selling amounts of oil well over the quotas assigned by OPEC.
The break with OPEC that followed "was the only way the Nigerians could go" because 90 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings come from oil exports, said one Western analyst. "They are slowly going bankrupt."
An already precarious foreign-exchange position has weakened considerably as oil exports have plummeted from 1.2 million barrels a day in December to less than 550,000 daily in the first 10 days of February. In 1980, Nigeria's daily production was 2.1 million, at $40 a barrel.
It remained unclear what action OPEC's pro-western giant, Saudi Arabia, would take. In the past, the Saudis have been cautious in their pricing and production policies, taking into account possible disruption of the global economy and collapse of overextended banks.
Mexico, with an $80 billion foreign debt, would be the hardest hit of non-OPEC countries by "any undercutting price war," a U.S. analyst said. Mexico's current price is $32.50 a barrel.
But a senior OPEC official in the Persian Gulf said that with Nigeria's public breach, "the price war begins," Reuters reported from Bahrain. "It is very dangerous," he added.
"If OPEC members, such as Libya, Iran and Venezuela, continue to cheat on pricing and production, then the organization is probably finished," said a well-informed western oil industry analyst.
"Nigeria preferred that OPEC as a group bring down prices and reduce production" to stabilize the market in the cartel's favor, he said. But the country concluded in the end that this was not feasible given its need to draw back buyers and increase revenues. One Lagos-based analyst said Nigeria "is in a very weak financial position to sustain a long, drawn-out price war, even though it is now out front." Nigeria does not have the bountiful foreign-exchange reserves that the Saudis enjoy.