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OPEC's try-and-try-again quest to sail an oil cartel past the rocks

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After a decade of awesome profits and influence, OPEC's prolonged failure to agree on prices and quotas has seriously undercut its credibility. It may even break up the cartel altogether, since the disagreements which surfaced here will continue long after these meetings end.

This is the view of a number of oil analysts, commentators, and economists in London as OPEC struggled to agree on prices and production quotas in a period of slack world demand.

One possibility now is that the Gulf oil states led by Saudi Arabia might split off into a nucleus of their own, based on their existing grouping known as the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Another suggestion is more far-reaching. One diplomat in London in close touch with daily developments said: ''What's needed now for greater stability in oil prices is a consortium consisting of producers and consumers.

''It could get together to arrange prices, and production quotas, and adequate buffer stocks to iron out price fluctuations.''

Consortia of this type already govern world markets in sugar, rubber, and tin.

The diplomat and other sources in the City of London financial district agree that while lower oil prices are good for the world economy, prices that drop too fast endanger producers, stop investment in oil substitutes and new exploration, and set the scene for another price rise when demand picks up again.

British analyst Anthony Sampson, author of a widely read book about the major oil companies called ''The Seven Sisters,'' agrees.

Mr. Sampson believes that producers such as Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela could be bankrupted on the way down. Consumers such as Brazil, South Korea, or India might be hard-hit on the way up.

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