Cartels are formal collusive agreements between firms, typically to fix prices, restrict output or divide up markets. As in the case of monopoly, the lack of competition may harm consumers, who are likely to have to pay higher prices. This, as economic theory demonstrates, results in a reduction in overall welfare.
For this reason competition authorities throughout the world now impose substantial fines on firms found to be involved in collusive activities and participants also face the threat of substantial jail sentences.
One of the most famous cartels is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is an agreement between 12 countries to limit their production of oil. The OPEC cartel has been in place for over 50 years. Arguably, the intergovernmental nature of the cartel and political ramifications of intervening have meant that OPEC has been able to operate free from prosecution for so long.
However, very interestingly Freedom Watch, a US public interest group founded by a former US Department of Justice lawyer, has this week filed a lawsuit against OPEC for violation of competition laws. Quoted in the above press release, Larry Klayman, the founder of Freedom Watch, says that:
These artificially-inflated crude oil prices fall hard on the backs of Americans, many of whom cannot afford to buy gasoline during these severely depressed economic times.
Furthermore, how some of the members use the profits gained from the cartel is also called into question. He also goes on to suggest that the lack of intervention from US government agencies may be because the leaders of both political parties:
… line their pockets from big oil interests and are just sitting back and not doing anything.
This is not the first time that Freedom Watch has served a lawsuit on OPEC. In 2008, at an OPEC meeting in Florida:
In a bold move in front of members of the news media, Freedom Watch Chairman and Chief Legal Counsel Larry Klayman literally jumped out from behind a line of TV cameras and microphones on Friday, October 24, to serve a complaint on an OPEC oil minister.
That complaint was unsuccessful.
It will be fascinating to see the outcome of this latest case and, if successful, the implications for OPEC – updates to appear on this blog in due course.
Profile: Opec, club of oil producing states BBC News (01/02/12)
OPEC accused of conspiracy against consumers WND World, Bob Unruh (09/05/12)
Freedom Watch Attorney Sues OPEC Oil Minister for Economic Terrorism Conservative Crusader, Jim Kouri (31/10/08)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (7/5/12)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (9/6/08)
- Why are cartels so severely punished?
- Why might it be important to punish the individuals involved as well as fine the cartel members?
- Why is fixing the price of oil particularly harmful for the economy?
- Why do you think the OPEC cartel has survived for so long?
- What do you think might be the long term implications of the lawsuit for OPEC?
Oil is a commodity like any other – its price is affected by demand and supply. Back in 2003, with the impending war in Ira and strikes in Venezuela, oil prices increased and continued to do so as further supply concerns developed in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Nigeria. This upward trend continued until 2008, when with the growing banking turmoil and demand for oil falling, the price began to decline. However, the crisis in Libya is only making matters worse. Its credit-rating has been downgraded with the potential for it to be lowered further and concerns are deepening about the country’s crude exports. As Libya is the world’s 12th largest exporter of oil, these supply concerns have started to push up oil prices once more.
With inflation rates already high and political turmoil pushing oil prices up further, consumers and firms are feeling the squeeze. These changes have also been reflected on stock markets across the world. Analyst, Michael Hewson at CMC Markets said:
‘Given the fact that we have seen massive gains in stock markets over the last few months, investors have been nervous about a possible correction for some time… The tensions in the Middle East with Libya imploding and concerns that the unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia could provide a catalyst for (this) correction.’
The disruption in the Middle East has caused companies such as Eni of Italy and Repsol YPF of Spain to shut down production, leading to output losses of some 22% of Libya’s production. As supply contracts from this region, prices will inevitably rise. However, the Saudi oil Minister has said that he is ready to boost production to offset any decline, but that at present there is no oil crisis. So, what can we expect to happen to oil prices in the coming months? It will all depend on changes in demand and supply.
Libyan crisis threatens to spark oil crisis Financial Times, Javier Blas and David Blair (22/2/11)
Libya protests: oil prices rise as unrest continues BBC News (22/2/11)
Oil producers, users sign charter as prices spike Associated Press (21/2/11)
Oil shock fears as Libya erupts Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/2/11)
Arab protests pose energy threat BBC News, Damian Kahya (22/2/11)
All eyes on Bahrain as Gulf tremors frighten oil markets Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/2/11)
Saudi Arabia seeks to calm market with words not oil Reuters (22/2/11)
Saudi Arabia says oil market needs no intervention Associated Press (21/2/11)
Peace in Bahrain is key to stopping oil prices from surging Live Oil Prices (22/2/11)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Crude Oil Price Chart WTI
- What are the key factors that influence the supply of oil? How will each factor affect the supply curve?
- What are the key factors that influence the demand for oil? How will each factor affect the demand curve?
- Putting your answers to questions 1 and 2 together and using your knowledge of recent events in the oil market, explain the changes in oil prices.
- How are oil prices affected by OPEC?
- How have rising oil prices affected the stock market? What’s the explanation for this relationship?
- How might higher prices affect the economic recovery? Think about the impact on consumers and firms.
Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks. At the beginning of October 2010, the spot price of Brent Crude was $80 per barrel. By December it has passed $90 per barrel. There is some way to go before it gets to the levels of mid-2008, when it peaked at over $140 per barrel (only then to fall rapidly as the world slid into recession, bottoming out at around $34 per barrel at the end of 2008).
Higher oil prices are a worry for governments around the world as they threaten higher inflation and put recovery from recession in jeopardy. You will probably have noticed the higher petrol prices at the pumps. If you spend more on petrol, you will have less to spend on other things.
So why have oil prices risen and are they likely to continue rising? The following articles examine the causes of the recent surge and look ahead to the likely response from OPEC and the path of oil prices next year.
Saudi Arabia to Check Oil Rally in 2011, Merrill’s Blanch Says Bloomberg, Juan Pablo Spinetto (13/12/10)
OPEC Cheating Most Since 2004 as Options Signal Oil Hitting $100 Next Year Bloomberg, Grant Smith and Margot Habiby (13/12/10)
Oil higher after OPEC output rollover; eyes on China Reuters, Christopher Johnson (13/12/10)
Central heating oil price shoots up by 70pc The Telegraph, Harry Wallop (10/12/10)
Speculators driving up price of oil St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kevin G. Hall (12/12/10)
UK petrol prices reach record high BBC News (10/12/10)
Brent cude oil prices (daily) U.S. Energy Information Administration (use the bar at the top to switch between daily, weekly, monthly and annual prices)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
OPEC Basket Price and other data OPEC
- Explain why oil prices have been rising. Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- How can the concepts of price elasticity of demand, income elasticity of demand and price elasticity of supply help to explain the magnitude of oil price movements?
- Examine what is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming months. What are likely to be the most important factors in determining the direction and size of the price movements? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side effects in your answer.
- What are ‘crude futures’? Explain how actions in the futures market are likely affect spot prices.
- To what extent can OPEC control oil prices?
- If crude oil prices go up by x%, would you expect petrol station prices to go up by approximately x%, or by more than or less than x%? Explain.
- Why have central heating oil prices risen by around 70% of over the past three months? What are the implications of your answer for the type of market structure in which central heating oil companies are operating?
Changes in the price of oil have effects throughout the economy. And it’s not just on the obvious things, such as petrol prices, energy bills and rail, bus and air fares. Most companies are significantly affected by the price of oil, as oil is a key input into their production, whether for transporting their inputs or the goods they produce, or as plastics or other petrochemicals. This is why the price of oil receives so much attention: we’re all affected by it. You will have seen the price of petrol changing dramatically over the past year or so and this is largely due to changing oil prices. The price of oil peaked at $147 a barrel in July 2008 and fell as low as $32 a barrel in December 2008.
So what is it that causes these changes in oil prices and what does it mean for the world’s economies? Read the following articles, which discuss these issues, and look at recent developments in the oil industry.
First fall in oil use since 1993 BBC News (10/6/09)
Trump’s world view Fox News, Interview between Greta van Susteren and Donald Trump (30/6/09) Oil settles above $71; China to boost reserves The Associated Press, Dirk Lammers (29/6/09)
Nigeria worries push up oil price BBC News (29/6/09)
Oil up to near $72 on dollar fall, Nigeria attack Town Hall, Pablo Gorondi (30/6/09)
Chinese demand forecast to boost oil price The Star Phoenix, Joanne Paulson (30/6/09)
Lower oil price hits Total profit BBC News (6/5/09)
Oil price hovers at $70 amid pipeline attacks Financial Times, Miles Johnson, Javier Blas, London (27/6/09)
What is going on in the oil market? BBC News (27/10/08)
Rising oil prices poses threat to recovery, Alistair Darling warns Telegraph (12/6/09)
Fears of oil crunch recede as recession knocks down global demand The Independent, Sarah Arnott (30/6/09)
- How is the price of oil determined? Give 2 examples of factors that could cause (a) the price of oil to increase and (b) the price of oil to decrease.
- How are company profits affected by the changing price of oil?
- OPEC is an oil cartel. What are the factors that make collusion more likely to succeed? Do they apply to OPEC?
- When prices of oil increase, why do we still use similar amounts of energy; still buy petrol? What’s so special about this commodity? Think about elasticity.
- How is the price and consumption of oil affected by the macroeconomic situation?
Oil prices have seen a relentless rise in recent weeks with much speculation that they will go over $100 a barrel in the near future. The high oil price has seen the average price of petrol go over £1 per litre in the UK, shortages and rationing in Tehran and violence in Yemen. So what is causing oil prices to rise and what impact is this likely to have on the global economy?
Tempests, truckers and tribesmen – another week in the oil market Guardian (10/11/07)
Steep decline in oil production brings risk of war and unrest, says new study Guardian (22/10/07)
The high oil price may begin to take its toll Times Online (12/11/07)
What is driving oil prices so high? BBC News Online (6/11/07)
OPEC: the oil cartel in profile BBC News Online (18/10/07)
Oil price rises after OPEC summit BBC News Online (19/11/07)
Oil markets explained BBC News Online (18/10/07)
Oil prices BBC News Online – Evan Davis blog (10/11/07)
Super-spiked The Economist (1/11/07)
The OPEC statement on oil prices BBC News Online – video link (19/11/07)
||Using supply and demand analysis, show the reasons why oil prices are rising.
||Using diagrams as appropriate, assess the likely impact of rising oil prices on the level of economic growth in the UK.
||Discuss the extent to which OPEC has been the main cause of the rise in oil prices.