Washington — On a typical day, oil traders at one of the largest US petroleum companies can glance at their desktop computers and see two full pages of crude oil trades.
But by midmorning last Friday, ''there was only one trade'' on the computer screen, says an executive at the giant oil company.
Oil traders as well as economic officials in a variety of countries are waiting to see what action officials of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will take at meetings slated to begin today in Geneva. At the gathering, OPEC officials are expected to plot strategies for stopping and perhaps reversing last week's slide in the price of oil sold under long-term contract.
The erosion in the contract price began last Monday when Norway, which is not an OPEC member, lowered the official price of its North Sea oil by $1.25 a barrel. Then, on Wednesday Britain, another non-OPEC member whose North Sea oil competes with Norway's, chopped its price by $1.35 a barrel, to $28.65.
OPEC's price discipline broke late Thursday when Nigeria, an OPEC member that competes with Britain, lowered its price by $2 a barrel, to $28. This was the first break in the cartel's official price since February 1983, when a price cut by Britain was followed by Nigeria, setting off a $5-a-barrel reduction, to $29, in OPEC's benchmark price.
OPEC's response to the latest round of price cutting will significantly influence the health of economies in industrial nations like the United States, as well as in poorer, developing countries. If the oil price decline persists, there will be winners and losers, but on balance it will be positive for the world economy, notes Richard Kessler, an energy expert at Georgetown University. Lower prices will stimulate economic growth and eventually lead to higher demand for oil, he says.
The long-term viability of OPEC itself is also at stake at this week's meetings, which will set the stage for an emergency gathering of OPEC oil ministers slated for Oct. 29, also in Geneva. The cartel's power has been buffeted by weak demand, overproduction, internal bickering, under-the-table price discounts, and changes in the way the oil market functions.
''I don't think OPEC is on its way out. But there is no doubt that OPEC is weaker now than before (last week's) chain of events,'' says John Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Council.
If OPEC is unsuccessful in reversing last week's oil price slide, as many analysts expect, the resulting lower oil prices would help the US economy by boosting growth and reducing inflation. That help would be welcome, since the economy slowed down more than was expected in the July to September period, new government statistics show.
The government reported Friday that the gross national product (GNP), the value of goods and services produced in the US, grew at a weak seasonally adjusted 2.7 percent annual rate in the third quarter. Most of the third-quarter growth came from businesses building inventories, or supplies, of goods to be sold. In the second quarter the economy grew at a 7.1 percent clip, and last month the government had estimated third-quarter GNP would be up 3.6 percent.
The slowdown caused some economists to warn of the danger of a growth recession, a condition where economic growth is not strong enough to keep unemployment from rising. Economists generally figure that the economy must grow at a 3-to-3.5 percent rate to avoid an increase in unemployment.
But US Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said Friday that consumers have ''returned from their July-August lunch break.'' The economic slowdown that resulted from a consumer spending pause ''is already behind us,'' he said, citing strong retail sales in September. Mr. Baldrige estimates the economy will grow 4 percent in the final quarter of 1984 and that unemployment will continue to decline.
Last month the overall unemployment rate stood at 7.3 percent, only one-tenth of a percentage point lower than in May. And only 270,000 new jobs were created in September, down from an average of 469,000 in the January through May period.
For 1985 as a whole, growth will be in the 3-to-4 percent range, which will keep ''downward pressure on unemployment,'' says Bernard Markstein III, a senior economist at Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm.
For the US economy to profit from lower oil prices, OPEC would have to fail in a bid to reverse the recent price erosion. A number of OPEC members, including Saudi Arabia, the cartel's largest producer, are said to favor cutting OPEC's production ceiling below the current 17.5 million barrels-a-day level. The plan would be to cut supplies and put upward pressure on prices.
On Friday the oil minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mani Said al-Otaiba, told a British television station that the ''solution to the present crisis is really production controls.''
OPEC has been troubled in the past, however, by under-the-table price cuts and production quota violations. So its ability to enforce a production cutback, especially among less-wealthy members eager for oil revenue, is in doubt.
Also, excess oil production capacity elsewhere could reduce the impact of OPEC production cuts. At least 25 percent of total world oil production is now sold in the spot (cash) market by non-OPEC members, oil traders say.
Many experts expect other OPEC members to follow Nigeria's lead and trim prices on their light oil. A cut of $1.50 to $2.00 a barrel is likely, says Mark French, manager of energy analysis at Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates.
Each $1 reduction in the price of a barrel of oil can translate into a 1.5 cents-a-gallon reduction in the retail price of gasoline. But an official of the Energy Information Administration, a quasi-independent arm of the US Energy Department, notes that oil companies, in an effort to improve their profit margins, may not pass along the entire price cut.
Data Resources Inc., a forecasting firm, expects US refiners in 1985 to pay an average of $28 a barrel for the domestic and foreign oil they buy. That is down from an estimated $28.75 in 1984 and $29 in 1983. The expected lower price will add about a quarter of a percentage point to US economic growth and knock two- or three-tenths of a percentage point off the US inflation rate, says Robert Gough, Data Resources senior vice-president.
While oil consuming nations will benefit from lower inflation and lower import costs, heavily indebted developing nations that sell oil could face major financial problems, experts say. For example, Mexico's finance minister, Jesus Silva Herzog, said last week that each $1 drop in oil prices could cost Mexico $ 550 million over the next year in lost oil revenue. Oil sales provided the nation with $14.8 billion in foreign revenue last year which is essential for paying off Mexico's $96 billion foreign debt.
Oil price cuts are expected to have a mixed economic impact in Britain. Each analysts say.
While the pound sank to new lows on news of the price cuts, experts at the London Business School's Center for Economic Forecasting also see a bright side to price reductions. The center told the Associated Press that a drop in oil prices to $25 a barrel would produce a 1 percent increase in economic growth and a gain of 200,000 jobs over the next three years.