OPEC has arrived -- it says--at an agreement on oil prices and production. Whether this kind of bargain can hold together for more than a few months is a question that will continue to hover over the oil markets. It's an intricate formula, but more realistic than previous attempts in the sense that it recognizes explicitly the crucial role of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have dominated this whole process of cutting the OPEC price, and from their point of view the result, although it imposes substantial risks on them, is pretty much a success.
They have managed to bring the price down in a fashion that diffuses the blame and resentment among the oil producers. They have also managed so far to prevent the spiral of competitive price-cutting that promised real peril to all producers everywhere, in OPEC or not. The whole thing has been skillfully done.
At the beginning of this year, OPEC was in desperate shape. A fierce price war was under way among its own members. Spring was coming, with another sharp seasonal drop in the demand for heating oil. Through much delicate maneuvering, the Saudis prodded Britain to lead the price cutting.
The last phase of the internal quarrel was over market shares. Everybody accepted the idea of a limit to OPEC production. But who was to sell how much? As it has been resolved, the other 12 members all have pledged themselves to fixed ceilings at a basic price of $29 a barrel. The Saudis, it appears, will have no ceiling but will sell as much or as little oil as may be necessary to balance the market. They are gambling that at $29 the world will want enough OPEC oil to keep them pumping at levels they consider acceptable.
Great tension is built into this agreement. It requires the Iranians to drop exports from the volumes of recent months while the Iraqis, with whom they are at war, are permitted an increase. Will Iran really cut back? Does that sound like the Iranians? The Libyans are also supposed to cut production, but the same questions apply. The Nigerians get an increase, but less than they claimed to need for their staggering economy.
For OPEC, the alternative was collapse. For the countries that import oil, this agreement offers an important respite. For them the $29 price means lower inflation, stronger currencies and more jobs. OPEC's agreement won't last forever. But as long as it lasts, it's good news for the rest of the world.