More than 75% of the world’s oil reserves are controlled by national oil companies. Of the world’s top 20 oil-producing firms, 14 are state-run. Those areas where private companies have been able to drill have recently been shrinking, and remaining private companies are facing hostile governments that may try to nationalize them.
Meanwhile, Congress, pandering to the least economically sound sentiments of the American public, recently tried to pass a bill to curb oil market speculation. This, lawmakers argued, was the way to get prices down. Speculation is just trading on the future price of a good. There have been many reasons to expect the price of oil to continue to rise. Along with rising demand, and subsidies to aid the rise in demand, there is a lot of risk. Risk causes volatility and drives prices up — at least in the short term.
There is risk because of the war in Iraq, because of the government in Iran, terrorism, and then there is additional risk because of the growing number of countries where the governments are trying to nationalize the oil supply.
This typically starts with the government harassing private oil companies. Clearly that makes owning stocks in those companies risky as owners will lose their investment. This can also fuel volatility in the futures markets as investors try to predict the likelihood of nationalization. If those companies get taken over or forced out, the total supply of oil may fall and so the future price will be higher.
This has been going on for a few years now. And the trend continues to worsen. Russia’s Vladimir Putin jailed the ex-chief of Yukos oil company so that it could be taken over by state-owned Rosneft in 2004. And today in Moscow, British Petrol is being hassled and taken to court.
In 2003 Hugo Chavez took the reigns of Petroleos de Venezuela in a “re-nationalization” move, and now Ecuador is taking Chevron to court. This little move by Ecuador could be the start of something bigger, as it looks like Ecuador might join forces with Chavez’s state-run venture, which might in turn join forces with Russia’s.
Bolivia also nationalized in 2006. Soon there will be nowhere left outside of Western Europe and the U.S. where private oil can safely drill.
Another reason that nationalization can drive prices up is that state-owned companies tend to under-produce private ones, creating additional risk that long-term output will be lower. Finally, consolidation of oil companies into just a few nationalized firms, especially when those countries form cartels rather than competing freely on the market, will also drive up prices. This trend in nationalization is simply an extension of the existing problems of OPEC. It should be obvious that this trend is contributing to the high oil prices.
But rather than see the reasons for the rise in prices — the real risks which face the oil market — Congress tries to strangle speculation, prevent new drilling, and it even flirts with idea of nationalizing our own supply. Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) both recently suggested it, and a recent poll shows many Democrats(and even a few Republicans) think it’s a good idea. But nationalizing is the problem, not the answer.