This time, OPEC really is to blame for higher oil prices.In recent days, oil traders and speculators have forced the price of oil above $80 a barrel despite the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' decision to raise production. I fully expect oil prices to keep rising for the rest of 2007 and into 2008. The only thing likely to stop oil from climbing to $85 a barrel is profit-taking by speculators themselves. Not every OPEC country is happy about this rise in oil prices. The Saudis, for example, have argued for increased production to hold down prices and keep demand from falling. But oil prices are headed up no matter what OPEC says or does. And OPEC really doesn't have anyone else to blame for its inability to set prices. Runaway demand in the oil-producing countries themselves is the newest factor pushing up global oil prices.
A Speculator's MarketYou can see where oil prices are headed in the reaction on Sept. 12 to OPEC's announcement that it would increase production. Despite the news, prices went up that day. The price of a barrel of benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude climbed $1.68 to $79.91. The next day, crude tacked on an additional 13 cents a barrel to close at $80.04. Speculators were ecstatic: Hedge funds and other traders have staked out big positions in the options market at $80 a barrel that are worth billions as oil climbs above that level.
- A 500,000-barrel-a-day increase in production is little more than symbolic. If the Saudis, the driving force behind this increase, were serious about holding prices at this level or driving them down, they would have pushed through an increase of 1 million barrels or more. All an increase of this size does is ratify current levels of production, which are as much as 2 million barrels a day above the official quota.
- There's a huge debate inside the oil industry and in the commodity pits about the status of Saudi oil reserves. The Saudis, who produce 9.5 million barrels a day now, have announced they will boost production to 12.5 million barrels, a 32% increase, by the end of this decade and to 15 million barrels by the end of the next decade. However, some oil traders and industry analysts don't believe Saudi Arabia can deliver, and they contend that the Saudis' big oil reserves are in far worse condition than the Saudis are letting on. The impact of any shortfall would be huge, because the Saudis are the only likely global source of a major increase in oil production in the next five years, according to the International Energy Agency. Without that production increase, the world is headed for a very painful short-term oil squeeze, the agency has concluded. So you can think of energy traders' bets on oil climbing above $80 as a huge vote that the Saudis won't or can't deliver as promised.
- Traders and analysts also aren't convinced that OPEC as a whole wants to increase production. The Saudis carry great clout inside that organization, but they have faced fierce opposition this year from an OPEC faction headed by Venezuela and Iran that is adamant about keeping prices as high as possible. Both countries desperately need high oil prices: Oil revenue is the only thing that stands between the regimes that rule in Caracas and Tehran and huge, possibly uncontainable protests. Anything that cuts into revenue, endangering subsidies that keep gasoline prices in Iran near 40 cents a gallon and that fund cheap food and health care in Venezuela, would be a political disaster.