The price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil at the New York Mercantile Exchange jumped $1.55 to $47.07 a barrel on Monday on the possibility that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will cut its production quota at its spring summit next weekend. The catalyst for the latest rumor about an OPEC cut was a statement by OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri, who told reporters over the weekend that "all options" would be considered at the meeting. Exactly why oil traders are so beholden to these updates from El-Badri and his underlings is a mystery. The group is notoriously inconsistent, and is infamous for its internal infighting. History suggests that there are many better sources for information about OPEC than the OPEC members themselves. "If there is any consistency at all in OPEC's forecasts, it is a lack of consistency," said James Williams, energy analyst at WTRG Economics in London, Arkansas. In fact, there are some pretty stout reasons why OPEC may not cut production at its next meeting. First, OPEC's recent string of production cuts appear to have effectively halted the slide in global oil prices. Although the price of West Texas crude futures on the Nymex has taken a hit over the last two months, its volatility has been more reflective of the technical contango in the market rather than supply and demand fundamentals. Brent crude, which is more exposed to global markets and better represents recent international price movements, has been stable near $44 a barrel for more than six weeks. That is a pretty strong signal that OPEC's existing cuts have been effective.
Second, if OPEC were to cut production at its next meeting, it would put itself in serious risk of being unable to meet global demand at a time when the world needs oil most. Demand for oil always ebbs during the spring and then spikes in late May when the U.S. summer driving season begins. OPEC cuts usually take about a month to take effect. Tanker travel time from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. Gulf Coast adds another six weeks until an OPEC cut is actually felt by U.S. consumers. Thus, if OPEC were to cut production at its meeting next weekend, Americans would probably feel the effect of the cut right around Memorial Day weekend. After spending the winter months tinkering with our car engines, we Americans love to hit the open road on Memorial Day. If gasoline prices suddenly spiked on Memorial Day because of a mistimed OPEC cut, Amercians would not be happy campers. Thirdly, the stronger OPEC members are all managing large sovereign wealth funds that they built up when oil prices were soaring above $100. Most of those funds have been reinvested in non-oil related assets in order to diversify their economies beyond commodities. "The value of those sovereign wealth funds is dependent on the state of the world economy," said James Williams. "The world economy is very weak at the moment. A rise in oil prices would weaken it further, and would not be appreciated by the sovereign wealth funds."
Finally, OPEC's most influential members -- especially Saudi Arabia -- have been unable to conceal their concern over the possibility that the U.S. and Europe succeed in engineering renewable energy resources that could compete on a commercial level with crude oil. Some analysts believe that OPEC is so worried about renewable energy that it is restructuring its internal system to prevent another major spike in the price of crude like the one experienced last summer. If OPEC takes the logical long-term route and keeps production steady, crude oil prices will likely take a hit. This would put downward pressure on stocks like BP ( BP), Chevron ( CVX), ConocoPhillips ( COP), Royal Dutch Shell ( RDS.A), and Exxon Mobil ( XOM). However, refining stocks like Valero ( VLO) and Tesoro ( TSO) would likely benefit if OPEC holds.