OPEC's StrategyProfessor Ferdinand E. Banks
December 10th, 2010
An article published in the Infantry Journal (U.S.) many years ago contained the following exotic question: "If you only had an hour in which turn civilians into soldiers, what would your instruction consist of?"
The thinking intrinsic in a question of that nature, as well as what might be called 'the school solution', struck me as being so original and provocative that I elaborated on it in my 'required' lecture at the Infantry Leadership School at Fort Ord (California). Remembering that wonderful occasion inevitably leaves me to believe that my enthusiasm was one of the reasons why I was the only trainee in my class to be expelled - without explanation or éclat - from that splendid establishment. Of course, some months later I gave a similar lecture at Fort Lewis, and it was so well received that I was allowed to exercise my vocal chords in front of troops until I took the liberty of arranging a very long and well deserved vacation in Germany.
In alluding to the relevance of that long-ago adventure, I can turn to this matter of OPEC and its strategy, which I have touched on in many presentations, most recently in Uppsala and Paris, and which in a classroom or examination situation would lead to the following query: If you only had an hour to discuss OPEC's objectives with an indifferent or unfriendly scholar, how would you begin and end this exercise?
The school solution in this case commences with the following: OPEC intends to export (and perhaps produce) as little oil as possible. It ends with: OPEC intends to export (and perhaps produce) as little oil as possible, regardless of what they say or do! It might also be wise to repeat this mantra a number of times during your exposition.
The logic in play here is an extension of the work of three brilliant economists. Professor Gunnar Myrdal, who was one of my teachers at the University of Stockholm; Professor Howard Chenery, who organized a small conference I attended in Paris in the l980s, and whose book (together with Paul Clark) I used when I taught at a U.N. Institute in Dakar (Senegal); and of course the superb article by Professor A.A. Kubursi 'Industrialisation in the Arab States of the Gulf: A Ruhr without water' (1984).
A short comment about these gentlemen is highly relevant. Gunnar Myrdal, Nobel Laureate in economics, and known and famous throughout the world, was unbeatable in a seminar room or conference, or for that matter at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall in 1974. His belief was that the study of development economics should be based on a study of the economics and sociology of successful economies. The two countries he recommended for study were the United States and Sweden.
Howard Chenery, a Professor at Harvard, went almost unnoticed by the Nobel Academy, which was another of their characteristic misunderstandings, although he was a leading mathematical economist in the study of economic development (and on the 'applied' level above the first winners of the economics 'Nobel': Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen). More remarkable however is the neglect by economists of Professor Kubursi (of McMaster University, in Canada), although the big mistake here might be the failure of Professor Kubursi to adequately market his theories of economic development to the 'academy'. The only place that I have seen or heard his name called is in my books, articles and lectures, although it is not impossible that he discussed his work in OPEC councils, because somebody (or persons) in those councils listened to or read what he had to say, and we see the results today. By that I mean high oil prices, and an expansion of refineries and petrochemicals in some OPEC countries.
The explicit observation by Professor Kubursi - and implicit in the work of Gunnar Myrdal and Howard Chenery - was that instead of exporting oil in its crude form, if the development process is taken to an optimal conclusion, that oil should be used in OPEC owned refineries, and a large amount of the refinery output used in the production of petrochemicals. More important, simple mathematics leads us to conclude that investing in facilities to produce refinery products and petrochemicals in e.g. the Middle East without having enough crude to utilize these facilities for 'X' years is a serious mistake! (The book edited by Professor Jean-Marie Chevalier (2009), and used at his institute at the University of Paris (Dauphin) deserves mention here.)
Rather than elaborate on mistakes of the kind noted above, I would like to present the opinion of a distinguished oil economist who definitely is NOT a friend of OPEC, Professor Morris Adelman of MIT, and his colleague Martin Zimmerman (1974).
"In the production of petrochemicals, most LDCs (less developed countries) are at a severe and permanent disadvantage for lack of know-how, and the high opportunity cost of capital and feedstocks. Other countries, particularly OPEC members, who do not face these obstacles are expanding their petrochemical capacities. This too will drive prices down, lower the profitability of all plants built today, and force losses on many investors. Few can compete with those that get their feed-stocks at a fraction of world prices, and are willing to earn low or negative rates of return."
Earning "low or negative rates of return" is not (and probably never was) the goal of new OPEC refiners and petrochemical producers, since with the huge amounts of feedstocks at the disposal of these firms, acceptable margins should be available for a very long time for these firms, as well as impressive national incomes for countries in which these firms are located. Moreover, even if desired outcomes are not immediately achieved, major oil producing countries can look forward to returns that result from transforming inexpensive refinery products into high-priced petrochemicals. This was pointed out by the Nobel Prize (in chemistry) winner Sir Harry Kroto many years ago.
It cannot be overemphasized that since energy costs are the key burden for chemical industries, the combination of inexpensive energy and state-of-the-art technology will ensure that the center of gravity of the global petrochemical industry will move toward the 'least-cost' Middle East. According to the time honored theory of comparative advantage, that is where it belongs. "Center of gravity" though does not mean complete domination. At any time this industry is a mixture of small and large, low and not-so-low cost, new and old, etc, and so theoretically the OPEC commitment will be adjusted so that the price will be high enough to keep some of the less favourably endowed plants in operation in order to supply total demand. Even so, many firms in this line of work have become unpleasantly aware of the realities brought about by the cheaper methods of production at the disposal of countries that no longer want to be a hostage to unfavourable oil or gas prices. Exactly how traditional firms will react to this challenge is uncertain, particularly in the short run, although in the long run many of them have no choice but to cut-and-run, to use one of President George W. Bush's favourite expressions.
After reading my above thoughts on this subject, and once again reviewing the paper of Professor Kubursi, I would like to say that while you may not find the observations at the beginning of this (shorter than one hour) essay relative or attractive, it is impossible to deny the bottom line. OPEC strategy is going to turn on producing and exporting as little crude oil as possible, and their business and political acquaintances abroad will simply have to get used to and adjust to this arrangement..
Adelman, Morris A. and Martin B. Zimmerman (1974). 'Prices and profits in Petrochemicals: an appraisal of investment by less developed countries'. Journal of Industrial Economics (1974).
Banks, Ferdinand E. Banks, (2011). 'Energy and Economic Theory' Singapore , London and New York: World Scientific'
_____. (2008)'The sum of many hopes and fears about the energy resources of the Middle East'. Lecture at the Ecole Normale Superieure (Paris), May 20, 2008
Chenery, Hollis and Paul Clarke (1962). Interindustry Economics. New York: Wiley.
Chevalier, Jean-Marie (2009). The New Energy Crisis: Climate, Economics and and Geopolitics. London:Palgrave McMillen (with CGEMP, Paris-Dauphine).
Eltony, Mohamed Nagy (2009). Oil dependence and economic development: the tale of Kuwait. Geopolitics of Energy (May).
Kubursi, A.A. (1984) 'Industrialisation in the Arab states of the Gulf: A Ruhr without water'. In Prospects for the World Oil Industry, edited by Tim Niblock and Richard Lawless. London and Sydney: Croom Helm.
Professor Ferdinand E. Banks
December 10th, 2010
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