Oil traders have certainly had an eventful year so far. WTI crude oil prices have ranged as low as $26.03 back in February to a high of $51.64 in early June. Whereas, brent crude oil prices were as low as $27.08 in January and as high as $52.83 in June. Mixed economic signals, oversupply gluts and OPEC politics have all attributed to the volatility we’ve seen this year and investors haven’t emerged from the rapids just yet.
Back in April, a production freeze was hinted by OPEC, a move that would’ve stymied the drop in oil values and helped to shore up the supply glut. However, no agreement was reached and member countries continued to produce oil. But this week, production freeze talks were renewed with the freeze taking place possibly in September. The news boosted oil prices by 3% on Monday and left investors wondering if this time things will be different.
OPEC's Oil Domination May Not Be Complete
For decades the oil industry has been under the control of OPEC, a virtual oil cartel primarily made up of Middle Eastern countries. They have had the ability to influence oil prices by controlling production regardless of global demand to meet their own needs. But foreign oil production – such as US shale oil – has threatened their market share and caused an international backlash, which has caused oil prices to fall to the lowest levels seen in more than a decade.
Despite the cooling global economy, OPEC members have continued pumping out oil, causing a supply glut in an attempt to choke off competition. But the plan seems to be backfiring. Depressed oil prices have hurt OPEC countries as well and caused division among members where once there was unity. Market dynamics are beginning to govern oil prices now – supply and demand are starting to be determined by market forces rather than by OPEC.
But OPEC’s power isn’t gone yet. A production freeze would certainly bring life back into the energy market and help bring down the supply glut that’s keeping prices low. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of OPEC, is now enacting its own initiatives to solve the oil crisis, one of which is to slowly let the market decide how much oil should be produced. With Saudi Arabia bowing out, the other members of OPEC are virtually powerless to affect prices.
Final Thoughts and What Investors Can Expect
Even if a production freeze doesn’t happen, something that would require cooperation by countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, the era of OPEC dominion is at an end. Oil values might not recover as quickly as investors might want, but global macroeconomic forces are becoming more important than anything OPEC might do.
Saudi Arabia will try to keep its production going despite what other OPEC members might desire, while Iran will almost certainly keep increasing production after the removal of the US and EU sanctions earlier this year. Russia, while not a member of OPEC, is expected to attend the production freeze talks, but hasn’t indicated that it will be making any decisions as of yet. Until a more definitive answer becomes available, investors should expect to see more volatility in oil prices leading up to September.