A poorer OPEC no longer spreads its wealth

In the bad old days of an oil embargo and gasoline lines, Americans at least got billions of petrodollars back from the oil-rich Middle East.

That money got recycled into the United States, mostly in safe bank deposits. The banks then invested it at great risk in Latin America and elsewhere.

So this time as gasoline prices soar again - an average $2.11 cents a gallon this week in the US - some Americans may be expecting another influx of Mideast cash. They shouldn't. The petrodollar is losing its international clout.

That trend says much about how oil-rich nations have changed, often for the worst, despite the big windfalls they're currently reaping.

"Oil is a curse, not a blessing" for oil producers, says Leo Drollas, chief economist of the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. "They tend to blow [their oil money]." Some nations spend it on arms and other military costs, some on job creation or bureaucrats' pay.

One of the key drivers is demographics. The population of most Middle East nations has about doubled in the past 30 years. Population has also soared in other OPEC nations. That means more youths to feed, educate, and house - at a cost. It also explains why seven of the 11 nations that make up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are poorer (or no richer) today per capita than they were in 1974.

So instead of investing their petrodollars abroad this time, most OPEC nations have ways to spend or use them at home.

Saudi Arabia's government, for instance, is repaying some $12 billion a year of the $160 billion it had borrowed from domestic pension funds in prior years to cover its deficits. Other OPEC members also are using extra oil money to reduce budget deficits.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is spending it on programs to bolster his political base, the nation's poor. Nigeria and Indonesia are heavily in debt, and find no trouble in spending every extra dime.

Another factor behind the reduced outflow of petrodollars: The price of oil today has not reached the peak in 1981, if inflation is factored in. Moreover, the record $57 a barrel reached this week in oil markets exaggerates the return to many OPEC members. It is for high-quality crude, not the heavier oils that many fields provide. The average price is less than $35 a barrel, says A.F. Alhajji, an economist at Ohio Northern University's business school in Ada.

Of the petrodollars that do leave home, fewer find their way to the US. In a post-9/11 scene, citizens of the Middle East are uneasy about traveling to America to splurge. They expect to be fingerprinted and possibly face other indignities at the airports.

Oil money going abroad is now spent mostly in Europe and Asia. And that's in spite of the fact that the decline of the dollar - by 40 percent against the euro - makes US goods cheaper.

While OPEC may seem to be riding high as oil prices soar, its influence is limited. Except for Saudi Arabia, members have only marginal influence in setting prices.

For example, several ministers of the cartel would like to see prices drop to the low $40s or high $30s, says John Lichtblau, an economist at the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York. They fear today's relatively high prices could reduce demand for their oil by slowing the world economy, prompting more conservation, and encouraging more output in non-OPEC countries.

But they're having a hard time getting markets to go along.

Meeting in Iran last week, OPEC pledged an immediate 1.9 percent rise in its overall quota to 27.5 million barrels per day. Ministers spoke of raising their output ceiling by 500,000 barrels per day, and maybe another 500,000 b.p.d. in May. Talks about the latter hike are already under way, says the Saudi oil minister.

Oil markets were not impressed, however. Prices stayed above $57 a barrel. It may be that speculators have pushed up oil's price by buying futures - delivery of oil in the months ahead. But most market experts agree that rapidly rising demand, especially from China and India, has put a strain on surplus capacity.

The Iraq war hasn't helped. Before the conflict, it exported 3 million b.p.d. Because of sabotage, Iraq now exports 2 million b.p.d. at best.

OPEC can't do much about these factors. "One shouldn't blame OPEC for high prices," says Mr. Lichtblau.

Within the cartel today, only Saudi Arabia can raise output decidedly, from about 9.5 million b.p.d. now to 11 million over a short period of time. Other OPEC members together might stretch to get another 500,000 b.p.d., he says.

In reality, OPEC has been mostly a failure as a cartel. OPEC first introduced quotas in 1983, long after its founding in 1960. When oil prices were dropping, these quotas "kept prices higher than they would have been," says Lichtblau.

But it hasn't been particularly effective when demand is growing, despite appearances.

It has no punishment mechanism for cheaters, Professor Alhajji says. (The Saudis have acted independently, punishing nations by flooding the market and driving down prices.) OPEC has no buffer stocks, no division of the market, and an insufficient market share (40 percent) to be effective.

The International Energy Agency in Paris expects growth in demand to slow to 1.5 million b.p.d this year. That may not be enough to trim prices.

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