OPEC and Russia are likely to extend their oil production deal at least through midyear, but if they were to cut more output, as some speculate, it would blindside what has become a complacent market, analysts said.
The ministers head into the Dec. 5 and 6 meeting with oil prices near their highest levels in two months. OPEC and Russia and other allies have an ongoing agreement to reduce output by 1.2 million barrels a day, with the biggest cuts coming from Saudi Arabia.
"At this stage, it's not perfect for a number of producers, but it's not catastrophic either," said Helima Croft, global head of commodities strategy at RBC. "We're kind of treading water."
The current agreement expires in March, but many analysts expect the OPEC plus group to extend it until its next meeting in June or even to its meeting a year from now.
"It's a very unsettled time for OPEC. The gulf between the haves and have nots has widened. Price relief has not been enough to stave off social unrest in a number of key producer states. ... There's no better option at this point," Croft said. "...We've had almost like a second Arab spring."
Croft expects the deal to be extended until June, and then ministers will again review it. Many other analysts expect the cuts will be extended as well, but some believe OPEC and Russia could cut even more.
"A Hollywood shock ending would be if they actually went deeper," Croft said.
The meeting comes at a key time for Saudi Arabia, which will be issuing stock in its state-run Saudi Aramco for the first time ever, just as OPEC's meeting gets underway.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the Saudis would go for more [production cuts], to tighten the market even more than they have already," said John Kilduff of Again Capital. Kilduff said Saudi Arabia may want to make sure oil prices continue to improve, especially in light of the Aramco offering.
Russian energy minister Alexander Novak has said he doesn't favor increasing the size of the cuts, and the Russian position is that members should be forced to comply with the current level of production.
Russia has also been angling to have condensates removed from the deal, meaning it would only to have its actual crude oil production counted, not other petroleum byproducts. If that were to happen, Russia's share of the cuts would fall since its overall production total would drop.
"The Russian intentions will be a critical aspect of it for the future, especially with them wanting some wiggle room on the condensate and potentially produce more. They'll be in the deal in name only," said Kilduff.
There has been speculation that Russia may be unhappy with the production agreement, in part because its energy companies oppose it.
"It's not so much that Russia is going to storm out of the meeting. As to what may end up happening, may be more wait and see," said Citigroup energy analyst Eric Lee. He said it's possible the OPEC plus group could maintain the status quo, hold off on extending the agreement, and call a meeting for right before the March expiration. That would unsettle the market, he said.
""Unless they deliver something quite strong and stick to it, then it's more likely to have some downside risk," he said.
Lee said it's even possible Russia and Saudi Arabia could ultimately break off their agreement, and it may have been ended already were it not for Russia's problems with contaminated oil earlier this year. The incident forced it to reduce exports, and it came into compliance with the accord.
But most analysts say the agreement has support from President Vladimir Putin and that's what matters most.
"He's the new sultan of oil," said Kilduff. Even Putin mentioned the Aramco IPO when discussing OPEC recently in Brazil.
"We have really constructive dialogue with OPEC," Putin was quoted as saying. "We understand that the tough stance, including from our friends from Saudi Arabia, is linked to the Saudi Aramco IPO. Everybody understands this. It's an open secret."
Russian energy companies are set to meet with Novak later in the week. "It helps Russia's bargaining position if Novak goes into the meeting and says he has a coalition of producers who don't like the cuts," she said.
Croft said the Russian relationship with OPEC, or Saudi Arabia, is important, and Putin supports the arrangement so Russia will be behind maintaining an agreement.
"I think the financial benefits and the soft power strategic gains far outweigh the cost of shutting down several hundred thousand barrels," said Croft. "The broader Russia Inc has gained enormously in terms of new deals that have been signed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE...The ultimate decision maker is Vladimir Putin and the deal provided significant dividends."
Kilduff said oil prices could go higher because currently the market is ignoring turmoil in the Middle East and is mostly focused on the trade talks between the U.S. and China.
Croft noted that protests in Iraq, near energy operations in Basra, could impact oil output if energy workers got involved. There has been unrest across the Middle East, including in Iran, where protests against the government are increasing as the economy worsens and Tehran cut gasoline subsidies.
"The futures market is signalling that the market is tightly supplied at the moment," said Kilduff. Brent futures were at $64.28 per share late Tuesday, near its highest level in two months.
U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela have helped keep supply off the market, enabling the market to absorb increased supplies form the U.S. and elsewhere. But OPEC members Iraq and Nigeria were also producing above their limit, though they are currently more in line with the agreement.