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OPEC approves biggest ever output cut

Group makes deep cut to counter slumping oil prices

Image: OPEC meeting
Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi speaks to reporters upon arrival at the OPEC meeting in Oran, Algeria, on Tuesday.
Ouahab Hebbat / AP
  OPEC’s big output cut
Dec. 17: A panel of experts on CNBC reacts to news of that OPEC has made its deepest output cut ever to counter slumping energy demand and falling oil prices.

ORAN, Algeria - OPEC on Wednesday agreed to slash 2.2 million barrels from its daily production — its single largest cut ever — while bloc outsiders Russia and Azerbaijan announced their own cutbacks of hundreds of thousands of barrels from the market.

"I hope we surprised you," OPEC President Chekib Khelil said when asked whether the size of the cut would shock moribund oil markets into an upward trend. "If you're not surprised we need to so something about it."

And yet markets weren't impressed.

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Crude oil sank to $40.20 after the announcement, a level not seen since the summer of 2004 and a clear sign investors are more worried that the world is heading for a long and painful recession in which energy use will continue to erode.

In just five months, crude has given up all of the price gains made over the past four years.

Making matters worse for OPEC, Moscow distanced itself from direct ties with the 13-nation producers' group, further dampening OPEC hopes of coordinated production cuts that might put a floor under crude prices.

OPEC said oil ministers of the 11 nations under the group's quota system agreed to take 4.2 million barrels a day off the market, but that includes two previous announced cuts that totaled 2 million barrels.

That leaves the new output reduction announced Wednesday at 2.2 million barrels, effective Jan. 1.

Still, even the record cut was unable to counterbalance consumers' concerns about the dismal world economy.

In the U.S., the world's largest crude consumer, the Federal Reserve's decision to slash its target interest rate to nearly zero buoyed global stock markets Tuesday and early Wednesday.

But the news on the U.S. economy is expected to get worse before it gets better. Businesses, which have already cut nearly 2 million jobs since January, keep laying off workers in the face of slumping demand.

The government reported Tuesday before the Fed rate announcement that home builders slashed production in November by 18.9 percent, the biggest drop in nearly a quarter century. That pushed activity down to a record low annual rate of 625,000 units as the woes in the property market, where the current economic troubles began, showed no signs of abating.

Focusing on the shrinking oil market, OPEC noted in its statement that "crude volumes entering the market remain well in excess of actual demand."

"Moreover, the impact of the grave global economic downturn has led to a destruction of demand, resulting in unprecedented downward pressure being exerted on prices," it said.

The group said "if unchecked, prices could fall to levels which would place in jeopardy the investments required to guarantee adequate energy supplies in the medium to long term."

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