- Jahangir Amuzegar
- Published Date:
- April 1983
The 1982–83 Oil “Glut”
The protracted worldwide slump in the 1980—83 period, with its 32 million unemployed workers and its slow or no growth, drastically cut the demand for oil, and particularly OPEC oil. In 1979, some 52.4 million barrels a day of crude oil were consumed by the world outside the “Eastern bloc.” Of this total, some 30.9 million barrels a day were supplied by OPEC. At the start of 1983, world demand was only about 45.5 million barrels a day; OPEC’s share was down to 17.5 million barrels a day. Responsible for the drastic fall in oil use (in addition to the recession) were such factors as a decrease in the share of crude oil in total commercial energy consumption (down from 56 per cent in the peak year of 1973 to less than 50 per cent in 1982), a steady drop in the oil/GNP ratio, and a marked depletion in oil stocks.191 As a result of competition from the United Kingdom, Norway, the U.S.S.R., and Mexico, OPEC’s share of oil supply had also declined from the record 65 per cent of total in 1976 to less than 40 per cent at the beginning of 1983.192 Despite such enormous share losses, OPEC members were unable to agree on a production/price strategy.
The Organization had been successful in holding the official price line in the past, that is, in 1975, 1977, and 1978, when the oil market was similarly limp. However, this had been due largely to the fact that only a minor share of world demand could be satisfied by the price-cutting non-OPEC competitors. OPEC was a major and not a residual producer. In early 1983 the situation had demonstrably changed; OPEC was at the end of the buyers’ shopping list and had to bear the larger brunt of the market’s downswing.193 Cutting production to a low level capable of defending the official price was thus not as easy as in previous years, because the members’ “irreducible minimum” output and foreign exchange needs had collectively grown beyond that level.194
Beginning in June 1982, OPEC members tried and failed three times within seven months to coordinate their production and pricing policies. Export quotas with a total ceiling of 17.5 million barrels a day, proposed in June 1982, did not become operational because some members considered their shares inequitably low and could not accept them. To get around those objections, a new ceiling of 18.5 million barrels a day was suggested in December 1982, along with certain individual quota adjustments. But the maintenance of the new ceiling was impossible owing to a relatively mild winter in major consuming countries and a stepped-up destocking program by the major oil companies. At an extraordinary OPEC ministerial meeting in January 1983, it was decided to reduce the total ceiling back to 17.5 million barrels a day, with quotas that were acceptable to individual members. But agreement could not be reached on oil price “differentials” (i.e., premiums charged for light and low-sulphur crudes). Under the continued weak demand for oil, the noncontract or spot market price fell below $30 a barrel in early February, and as much as 30 to 40 per cent of daily oil transactions were being diverted to this market (against the customary 5 to 10 per cent).
In February, however, OPEC members were faced with the inevitability of an official price adjustment following a price cut by their North Sea competitors. The British National Oil Company reduced the price of its standard North Sea oil by $3 a barrel, to $30.50, on February 17, 1983. Norway followed the U.K. move immediately. Two days later, Nigeria (whose light oil is similar to the North Sea’s and is a direct competitor) lowered its “Bonny” light crude price by $5.50, to $30, that is, $4 less than OPEC’s official benchmark price of $34.195 The U.S.S.R. also reportedly lowered the price of its Urals oil (of similar quality to Saudi Arabia’s), first to $29.35 and later to $27.50.
The establishment of a production/price discipline—something OPEC had never been able ideally to achieve before—was even more difficult now because of changes in the fundamental character, economic power, and external position of the Organization. With the passage of time, differences among member countries had become sharper and more pronounced. Members opposed to official price cuts argued that lower prices were not going to help sales, because of small short-term elasticities and possible further matchings by North Sea competitors; instead, oil revenues would fall and financial needs would suffer. Price-cut advocates, on the other hand, believed that OPEC’s long-term interest could not be served except through a lower benchmark price accompanied by disciplined production cuts within an overall ceiling. These differences were reconciled at OPEC’s sixty-seventh extraordinary meeting, held in London in March 1983, when members reached a consensus on prices and output, known as the London accord.
The London Accord
According to a communiqué issued on March 14, 1983, the benchmark price of Saudi Arabian light crude was reduced by 15 per cent, from $34 to $29. This was the first official price cut in OPEC’s history. An average ceiling of 17.5 million barrels a day for the group as a whole was also agreed upon for the remainder of 1983. Production quotas were set for each member except Saudi Arabia, which was to continue as a swing producer, that is, to vary its output in accordance with market conditions. Members were enjoined from giving “discounts” in any form. Also, the premium on Nigerian oil was reduced from $3 to $1 a barrel to make it competitive with the North Sea crudes. The ministers expressed confidence that the new price/output package would restore stability to the market, particularly because some non-OPEC suppliers (especially Mexico) were expected to follow OPEC’s price lead. Officially, the new agreement was to be monitored by a four-member committee of OPEC.
Because OPEC’s production at the time of this agreement was reportedly less than 14 million barrels a day, there was speculation that the total ceiling of 17.5 million barrels a day could not be continued without putting further pressure on prices. Thus, barring a demand pickup later in the year, the possibilities of subsequent price cuts (or even a price war) were not ruled out by oil analysts. This possibility, however, was significantly reduced, at least for the immediate future, when the United Kingdom cut its North Sea oil prices between 50 cents and 75 cents a barrel on March 30, 1983 (bringing its standard Brent price to $30) and Nigeria (which was going to be most directly affected by the new price cut) announced the following day that it was not going to match the British cut and had decided to keep its sweet Bonny oil price unchanged at $30.
What remains to be seen is the impact of the new accord on world economies and on individual groups. Most analysts agreed that the long-term consequences of the London consensus for world growth, inflation, interest rates, and external balances were complex. The net result would depend on an interaction of economic, social, and political forces among consumers, businessmen, and governments inside and outside OPEC.
Assuming, however, that the agreement holds, and that the production/price package stands up in the market, it would benefit the major oil importing countries that have no significant oil resources of their own (e.g., Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany), which would be expected to have smaller oil bills, better terms of trade through stronger currencies, and lower inflation through reduced fuel costs;196 the newly industrializing countries (e.g., Brazil and the Philippines) with large oil imports and heavy debts, which would be expected to have smaller external deficits, lower debt servicing, better financial capacity for more imports, and improved export prospects; and all industrial countries with energy-intensive manufacturing industries, as well as airlines, overland transportation, and large utilities, which would continue to be heavy users of fuel.
The new price structure would adversely affect the major oil exporting countries and the large net oil exporters, particularly those with heavy debts (Mexico, Venezuela) and some of the oil-dependent economies, which depend heavily on the oil revenues (e.g., Algeria, Nigeria, Indonesia); oil exploration and drilling activities, which need fairly high prices to justify high-cost production (those which were predicting $100-a-barrel oil by 1990); governments in the major oil consuming countries, which may become more dependent on foreign oil; millions of temporary foreign workers in OPEC territories who might be sent back to their own countries as a result of cuts in development projects (and their governments which were the recipients of exchange remittances); and the poorest developing countries and some aid-giving agencies which so far have been major recipients of OPEC assistance.
For the world as a whole, and in the longer run, the positive side of the London accord includes a boost to real economic activity in the industrial and non-oil developing countries, thanks to cuts in energy import bills and expenditures on other items (the same way as a tax cut would); a reduction in worldwide unemployment; a decline in international inflation; and a fall in interest rates.197 Assuming that governments and business circles perceive OPEC’s latest decision as effective and enduring, the net effects in the oil importing countries as a group would be a rise in real gross product of about 1 per cent; a fall in the domestic GNP deflator of about 0.7–1 per cent; and an improvement in the combined current account of the industrial countries of about $20–25 billion, and of the net oil importing non-oil developing countries of $6–8 billion.
The negative side may involve the shelving of major projects for developing alternative sources of energy and the undercutting of hugh investments in synfuels;198 a threat to recent conservation efforts (e.g., switching back from gas and coal to oil, and consumers returning to their previous lifestyle); significant new economic problems and financial difficulties in some of the oil exporting countries; a curbing of development plans and imports in the other fast-growing oil exporting economies; and a probable reduction in overall global concessional assistance.199
In all, while the outcome and the net global impact of the March 14 resolution remain to be assessed in the months to come, certain observations can be safely made. For example, the projected absence of a balance of payments surplus for OPEC as a group in 1983, and modest surpluses in the subsequent two years, will make petrodollar recycling (a major concern of Chapter IV) less of an immediate problem for private commercial banks and the International Monetary Fund. But the task of economic management in some of the major oil exporting countries with large external debts, or heavy internal development obligations, may become more arduous for the international system, including the Fund. The plight of some poorer developing countries, with little or no prospect of expanding exports to the industrial world but dependent for part of their foreign exchange earnings on OPEC aid and remittances from workers in OPEC territories, may also have to be treated more sympathetically. The obviously unwelcome fallouts of adverse developments in any of these areas seem to underscore more than ever the necessity of a broader-based agreement between major oil consumers, OPEC members, and the major oil companies in order to safeguard an orderly worldwide production and distribution of petroleum at sustained, predictable, and nonvolatile prices.200
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