When OPEC reached a deal with Russia and other producers in 2016 to end a two-year oil price slump, it was a relatively straightforward affair. The alliance announced it was slashing output, each country agreed to a specific production quota and international oil prices rallied about $7 a barrel.
Heading into next week's OPEC meeting, few analysts anticipate such decisive action or so clear-cut an outcome — even with the oil market near the bottom of the worst price plunge since the 2008 financial crisis.
To be sure, top OPEC producer Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are widely expected to orchestrate another output cut when producers meet in Vienna on Thursday. The signals are clear: Forecasters think the oil market will be oversupplied next year, the cost of crude has tumbled more than 30 percent in just eight weeks, and most OPEC members don't stand a chance of balancing their budgets at current price levels.
But the group is dealing with a very different set of challenges than it faced in 2016, including a U.S. president who is fiercely opposed to price-boosting production cuts. Analysts now expect the meeting to culminate with an official statement that leaves the market scratching its head over just how many barrels OPEC intends to take off the market.
"I do think there will be OPEC math," said Tamar Essner, director of energy and utilities at Nasdaq Corporate Solutions. "You'll have to figure out the cuts from baseline levels. I don't think it will be necessarily all that clear based on the statements."
That could result in a repeat of OPEC's June meeting. With oil prices rising rapidly, the group agreed to reverse course and hike output but offered little in the way of a blueprint.
The OPEC alliance agreed two years ago to keep 1.8 million barrels per day off the market, but by this last April, the group's output had fallen by about 2.7 million bpd. Instead of clearly stating they would correct by restoring about 1 million bpd, producers vowed to return to 100 percent compliance. The group also failed to release revised quotas for each nation.
Markets responded to OPEC's ambiguity by pushing oil prices higher, the opposite of what the cartel intended.
In the following months, U.S. crude rallied to a nearly four-year high at $76.90 a barrel, driven by fears of oil shortages ahead of U.S. sanctions on Iran. The price has since tumbled 35 percent over the last eight weeks, hitting a 13-month low at $49.41 on Thursday.
John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital, says traders may punish oil prices if the OPEC statement once again disappoints the market.
"If this OPEC meeting falls apart, you could see prices rapidly fall down to potential support down to $42," he told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Thursday. "There is a zone of congestion on the charts ... between $45 and $50, so it will be a tough slog, but your downside objective is $42."