Few commentators have recognized the significance of OPEC’s January 30 decision to temporarily suspend their price band mechanism. If the suspension is indeed temporary, it may not be that important. If it isn’t, there are some interesting parallels to the suspension of the U.S. gold standard in 1968 to 1971.

The gold standard was maintained by fixing the dollar price of gold and by federal stockpiling of gold. This was the means by which most currencies had maintained their value since ancient times. By the late nineteenth century, the growth in international trade had made the system difficult to maintain, but it continued for lack of an alternative.

The Bretton Woods agreements at the end of the Second World War reduced the importance of precious metals in the international financial system and the United States government suspended purchases of newly-mined gold in 1968. The United States gold market was fully deregulated in 1971.

Oil was sold at fixed prices under long-term contracts until the nationalizations of the mid-seventies, when oil traders began to play an important role. Oil prices became more transparent in 1983 when crude oil futures began to be traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. From 1979 to 1985, OPEC tried to defend too high a price target and lost market share.

According to Pennwell’s Energy Statistics Sourcebook, OPEC production declined from 30.67 million barrels per day in 1979 to 16.02 million barrels per day in 1985. The same source list OPEC’s maximum sustainable production capacity as 34.4 million barrels per day in 1985. By the end of 1985, OPEC had 18 million barrels per day of shut-in oil production capacity. It became clear that there had to be a price ceiling as well as a floor. This was the price band.

Viewed from a different angle, an oil price ceiling is a dollar floor. Oil is traded in greater dollar volumes than any other commodity so the oil standard had more liquidity than gold ever did. The value of OPEC’s oil production is more than a billion dollars per day. The oil equivalent of Fort Knox was not the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; it was the combined oil reserves of OPEC, three orders of magnitude greater and much larger in value than all the gold mined since the dawn of history. According to the December 20, 2004 issue of the Oil and Gas Journal, the oil reserves of OPEC at yearend 2004 are estimated to be 885 billion barrels.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the total gold ever mined in the world is about 3.4 billion troy ounces. At $42 per barrel for oil and $420 per troy ounce for gold, the value of Opec’s reserves is 26 times the value of all gold ever mined. The United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve contained about 680 million barrels as of February 7, so it’s role is an emergency supply in case of an oil market disruption; it is too small to have any long-term influence on oil markets.

Was the oil standard an accident or was it a deliberate product of U.S. policy? Motives are difficult to determine and the U.S. Treasury has not claimed to tie the dollar to oil prices. The ultimate effect of the end of the oil standard is difficult to predict, but one should not understate its importance.

Greg Croft is an Oil Exploration Consultant