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The Yomiuri Shimbun
Expedite freeze on oil production levels to stabilize crude prices
産油国会合不調 価格安定へ増産凍結を急げ

Oil ministers of major oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia and Russia, at a meeting on Sunday put off reaching an agreement on freezing oil output levels.

In a bid to stem the decline in crude oil prices, they had aimed to freeze oil output at January levels. As Saudi Arabia was angered by the absence of Iran, which has indicated it would increase production, the ministers put off reaching an accord.

They are said to continue negotiating intermittently until the next meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries scheduled in June.

Slumping crude oil prices not only have an adverse impact on the economies of oil-producing countries but also are risk factors for oil-consuming countries and the rest of the world.

When combined, the crude oil output of the 18 countries that participated in the meeting accounts for half the world’s production. Major oil-producing countries must expedite their efforts in building a consensus on specific measures to stabilize oil prices, including freezing production levels.

Following the failure by oil-rich countries to agree to freeze production levels, crude oil futures, which had been traded in the lower half of the $40 range per barrel on the U.S. market, fell further to the upper half of the $30 range.

Fearing that further declines in crude prices may cause turmoil in financial markets, investors have taken a risk-avoidance stance, causing the yen to strengthen and stock prices to decline on the Tokyo market.

For Japan, an oil-consuming country, a decline in crude oil prices would usually have a positive effect, but at the current time, the situation is different. We must not underestimate the possible negative impact on the Japanese economy when the pace of its economic recovery has been sluggish.

Saudi-Iran rivalry

Oil-producing countries with tight fiscal situations may accelerate their moves to pull their oil money out of financial markets, causing stocks to plunge around the world. Such doubts and fears show signs of spreading. Strict observation of market trends in the days ahead is needed.

Behind the failure of oil-producing countries to reach an accord is a tug-of-war for hegemony in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia, which refers to itself as the leader of Sunni Muslim nations, and Iran, a major Shiite-dominated country.

Their confrontation has intensified as the two countries severed diplomatic ties in January following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Saudi Arabia is strongly resistant to any agreement that would favor its rival Iran. Meanwhile, Iran can hardly go along with freezing output levels as the country has just begun increasing its production following the lifting in January of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries over Tehran’s nuclear development.

It will not be easy to untangle the complex factors that are blocking an accord on freezing oil output. The roles Russia and the United States play are important as they are major oil-producing countries outside the Middle East.

Due to falling crude prices, Russia is suffering from negative economic growth as the country has been hit by the ruble’s sharp decline and high inflation. Meanwhile, the United States has seen the profit margins of its shale oil wells fall. While taking heed of the impacts on their own economies, Russia and the United States should press Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach some kind of compromise.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 19, 2016)

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