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Does OPEC Matter Anymore?

Simon Constable

There was once a time when oil market traders could win or lose based on just a few words from OPEC oil ministers. These days, not so much.

For investors, there is an important question: Is OPEC even worth worrying about?

Just as with many things in investing, the answer is nuanced.

OPEC's salad days are over. It's true that the days when OPEC was the be-all and end-all of the energy market are gone. Founded in 1960, the 13 members are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Qatar, Libya, U.A.E., Algeria, Ecuador, Gabon and Angola.

[Read: How to Find the Best Oil Stocks.]

In its heyday, the group acted as a cartel by cutting production to increase the global price of crude. For instance, in the 1970s an oil embargo by Arab members of the cartel caused prices to skyrocket.

These days the influence is much reduced. The hydraulic fracturing revolution, or fracking, has helped liberate vast quantities of shale oil and natural gas. So while back in the 1970s the U.S. was highly dependent on energy imports these days that's not so much of a concern. Meanwhile, the changing state of the world market means OPEC has less influence.

Cartels are unstable. With all cartels that reduce production to create higher prices, there is an incentive for members to produce more than agreed upon. When Saudi Arabia dominated global supply it was easy for them to change their own output to balance the market from the effects of the cheating on the quotas.

"The Saudis have long been the swing producer, cutting back their own output when others cheat," says Adam Johnson, founder and author of the Bullseye Brief newsletter, and a former professional commodities trader. "Now they're as desperate for cash as everyone else, having way overspent on infrastructure assuming $100 oil in perpetuity."

Crude prices in the U.S. are hovering around $50 a barrel, down from more than $100 in mid-2014. They had been as low as $26 in February 2016.

The change in the overall economics of the energy business has made it much harder to influence the oil price in major ways, even for a major producer like Saudi Arabia. "All OPEC did back in February was match the seasonal decline in demand, so it merely attempted to balance markets, not move them," Johnson says.

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Even though higher prices would certainly suit Saudi Arabia it chose to reduce output only modestly.

Technology will make OPEC irrelevant. Over the last two decades, advances in technology have made the extraction of minerals easier. Most notably in the energy industry, we have seen the use of fracking. That technical revolution has helped boost oil production in the U.S. significantly. But there have also been problems, including possible pollution of the water supply and earth tremors.

Not everyone thinks such problems are here to stay.

"Smart engineers can make fracking cheaper and safer," says Rich Suttmeier, founder & CEO of Global Market Consultants in Land O' Lakes, Florida.

If experts can make the extraction methods safer that will mean that the objections to fracking will eventually fall silent. And lower cost methods of drilling reduce the breakeven price where it is profitable to extract the energy. That should result in more supply.

The result of all this is that the price of crude seems to be headed lower, according to Suttmeier. "There is more of a risk of a price war than there is of oil going $80 a barrel because of the natural instability of OPEC," he says.

Not all sanguine. But does that mean we can totally dismiss OPEC as an important player in the market? Probably not. Although the U.S. is close to being energy independent other major economies rely heavily on imports for oil and natural gas.

"The European Union, Japan, and others are dependent on oil and its prices, the U.S. far less so," says Victor Sperandeo CEO of EAM Partners L.P. in Dallas.

On top of that, oil prices are set based on global supply and demand. So even if the U.S. gets to a point where it doesn't import a single drop of oil, the price of that energy will still be largely determined by global supply and demand for crude.

Potential for war. Sperandeo also points out that supply disruptions caused by armed conflict could send prices a lot higher.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil producers, are not on friendly terms, he says. While the oil market can probably live without friendship, but what about open conflict?

[See: 10 Long-Term Investing Strategies That Work.]

"If a war breaks out between the two the oil price will double," he says. "Thereby [OPEC] is still very relevant to most of the world and would affect U.S. oil prices greatly though not supply as much."



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