Conventional wisdom holds that the OPEC oil cartel has the world in its grasp. It can manipulate prices by tinkering with supplies. Last month OPEC released a new study on world oil demand that seemed to signal the cartel was readying to tighten the taps because higher prices were slaking the world’s thirst for oil. The American Petroleum Institute released fresh data showing that demand for oil products in the United States (the world’s largest market) dropped a whopping 3 percent from the year earlier. The news about lower demand has caused oil prices to fall a bit, and all eyes are on OPEC’s wizards to tighten supplies.
But the conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. OPEC (which stands for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is no wizard. For the most part, its actions lag behind fundamental changes in oil supply and demand rather than lead them. OPEC looks like a masterful cartel when, in fact, it is mainly just riding the waves.
It is hard to figure out exactly what goes on behind’s OPEC’s closed doors, but glimpses are possible by probing what the cartel members say about prices and how they set quotas. Over the last five years, OPEC members have announced ever-higher price goals only after the market had already delivered those high prices. As the market has soared, OPEC has followed.