All you need to know about OPEC's big meeting

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OPEC is holding much-buzzed-about informal talks in Algiers on September 26-28.

And there’s been a flurry of both positive and negative headlines, creating an air of drama in the days leading up to the event.

For example, Reuters reported on Friday morning that Saudi Arabia offered to reduce production if its rival Iran agreed to cap its own output this year, citing “three sources familiar with the discussions.”

But then later in the day, Bloomberg reported that a member of the Saudi delegation said he does not expect an oil production freeze agreement to be reached at next week’s meeting.

However, looking past the minute-to-minute dispatches, the big picture here is that OPEC members are feeling the pull of two opposing forces: 1) they are burdened by domestic economic and financial pressures in light of lower oil prices, but 2) there remain political tensions and long-run strategic market interests that could keep the cartel from agreeing once again.

For what it’s worth, most analysts aren’t getting their hopes up.

“All eyes will be on the informal OPEC meeting in Algiers early next week. There is considerable speculation that some sort of deal to limit output will be forthcoming, but we are sceptical that agreement will be reached,” argued the Capital Economics commodities team, headed by Julian Jessop, in a note to clients.

“We are always a little sceptical of announcements like [the one reported by Reuters]. There has been a consistent pattern over the last few months of OPEC ministers attempting to ‘talk up’ prices with comments about a potential output freeze deal being close. But historically most of these comments have proved to be unfounded,” added Tom Pugh, a commodities economist on the team, in a separate note.

Moreover, a team at BMI Research argued in a note that on-going “political tensions will prevent cohesion, and individual members will continue to protect market share from resilient non-OPEC producers.”

“We believe that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will remain the main impediment to OPEC reaching a deal,” the team added. “Over the past five months, tensions between the two countries have continued unabated, and Iran has repeatedly vowed to keep increasing production over the coming months.”

Taking that a step further, it’s worth to considering the relationship between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia in the big oil demand battleground, China.

Earlier in September, the Saudis and the Russians agreed at the G-20 summit in China to cooperate on oil and to create a “working group” to stabilise markets. And that’s relevant to the upcoming meeting, as RBC Capital Markets’ commodity strategist Michael Tran noted, because:

“If Russia intends to coordinate action alongside OPEC as recently indicated, the key incremental swing threat to Saudi Arabia potentially losing more market share is Iran. Iran has made a meaningful push back into China over recent months, with its market share recently approaching highs near 10% after dipping to as low as 5% during the years plagued by sanctions. […] Iran is the one to watch heading into the informal OPEC talks later this month.”

For a visual reference, here’s a chart of Chinese crude imports from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran:

However, Helima Croft, the global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets is more optimistic. She argued in a recent note that the “odds are in favour of the cartel opting for pragmatism and announcing a moderately constructive framework.”

As she and her team explained in greater detail:

“This time, we believe that the environment is more conducive to some type of deal, and if there is not enough time to iron out all the details in just a few days, the ensuing statement will strongly suggest a willingness to act at the November meeting (assuming that market conditions remain challenging). Perhaps most compelling, many of the biggest and most influential producers are close to maxing out and hence may judge that there is little downside to agreeing to cap output at current levels or sign up again for a collective ceiling.”

Furthermore, her team had previously noted that things have gotten tougher at home financially for both the Saudis and the Iranians — and their publics have started to notice.

As such, “while the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry could still upend the talks, we contend that these countries have the capacity to opt for pragmatism in order to secure some financial relief,” they wrote.

In short, OPEC members are certainly feeling the economic pressures from lower oil prices, but they aren’t too keen to abandon long-run market and political interests.

Or as Macquarie Capital’s Vikas Dwivedi summed up in a note: “The back and forth rhetoric surrounding this meeting highlights the intrinsic stress among oil producers right now: oil prices are too low but coordinated responses will be difficult to achieve.”

Buckle up for Algiers.

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