OPED: Donald Trump can’t live without OPEC

Julian Lee
Bloomberg News
A gasoline pump at Fuel City in Dallas on Oct. 29, 2015. (Rose Baca/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

The U.S. Department of Justice is formally reviewing antitrust laws aimed at curbing OPEC’s power over oil markets, raising the prospect of anti-OPEC legislation landing on President Donald Trump’s desk for signature. Tempting as it might be, the long-term cost of ending the group’s influence over prices would far outweigh any quick gains.

Bipartisan anti-OPEC bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate, although neither chamber has voted on them yet. The House Judiciary Committee in June approved the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act,” or NOPEC bill. That would amend the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to give the U.S. Attorney General authority to file a suit against OPEC for trying to control oil production or affect crude prices. Previous presidents said they would veto any such legislation. How Trump would react is, as so often, impossible to predict.

His love of cheap gasoline and frequent Twitter rants against OPEC suggest that lawmakers have more of a friend in the White House. But Trump’s equally public support for Saudi Arabia’s embattled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hints that even he may balk at signing into law an act that would damage the kingdom and its young leader-in-waiting and put at risk those arms sales the president is so keen on.

The rationale behind the NOPEC legislation is clear. Crude oil costs make up about 60 percent of U.S. pump prices for gas and diesel, far more than in Europe where taxes make up most of retail prices. Cut crude prices, by curtailing OPEC’s power to raise them, and you quickly get cheaper gas. The benefits are spread widely across the electorate and there’s a clear link back to policy — just what every politician loves.

But the situation is less straightforward than that. Soaring U.S. oil production means it makes a much bigger contribution to the economy than was the case just a few years back. So the benefit of low crude prices for the country is a lot less clear now than, say, when oil prices were $100 a barrel and U.S. production was about half what it is today. The recent slump in crude prices will probably worsen the U.S.’s “already challenged” economic outlook, according to Morgan Stanley strategists. It may begin to weigh on the dollar too, TD Securities says.

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And what about the broader impact of curtailing OPEC’s ability to manage global supply to reflect changes in demand? I have written before about how emasculating the group would cripple the whole sector’s ability to respond to unexpected supply losses. True, soaring shale oil output has let Trump slap sanctions back on Iran without triggering a surge in prices. But that won’t last forever. In five years’ time we’re going to need a new safety net. If the OPEC countries aren’t providing it, who will?

Saudi Arabia says repeatedly that it won’t balance supply and demand on its own. The agreement that helped lift oil prices after their steep fall in 2014-15 took so long to put together because the kingdom insisted that producers from outside OPEC join the push.

We have no recent experience of a “free” oil market. Supply management by OPEC was preceded by the even tighter control exercised by the “Seven Sisters” group of oil companies and, before that, the Texas Railroad Commission. We have to look back to the earliest decades of the industry in the 1860s and 1870s to see the real impact of a truly free market: It was the most volatile period for oil prices in history — apart from the 1970s and the Arab oil embargo and Iranian revolution. Sure, volatility-loving traders might rub their hands in delight, but not producers and consumers.

There’s also the question about at what price you stop making money from investing in fields. In March, oil consultancy Wood Mackenzie published break-even assessments for potential new projects. Sure, the best would make money even with oil at $20 a barrel, but there aren’t nearly enough of them to offset the decline of old fields. With Brent at $50, the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of the U.S. shale patch become uneconomic.

So if you want to stop OPEC managing oil supply to support prices, be careful what you wish for. It’s a thankless, but necessary, task.

— Julian Lee is an oil strategist for Bloomberg. Previously he worked as a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.