Oil ends modestly higher, weak demand outlook weighs

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Crude oil prices ended modestly higher on Wednesday, but gains were capped by lower oil demand growth estimates and ample supplies.

Spot Brent crude oil futures settled 53 cents higher at $103.49 after trading as high as $104.10. The July Brent contract expires on Thursday. August Brent crude oil futures ended the day at $103.56, up 59 cents.

Front-month U.S. crude oil futures settled 50 cents higher at $95.88.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said modest economic growth was limiting oil demand worldwide, and that some developed economies would see absolute declines in oil consumption in 2013.

In China, the world's No. 2 oil consumer, "weaker economic growth and lower than previously forecast March/April consumption data" support the view that demand is weakening, the IEA said.

Both OPEC and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cut their global oil demand growth forecasts on Tuesday.

Weekly U.S. crude stockpiles rose 2.52 million barrels last week, defying expectations of a 700,000 barrel draw, data from the EIA showed. The report followed data released by the American Petroleum Institute on Tuesday that crude oil stocks rose 9 million barrels last week.

"I think that overall the U.S. stockpiles indicate there's more than ample supply of oil," said Gene McGillian, oil analyst with Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut. "The important thing is how the economies are going to do in the U.S. and China."

Crude oil prices were drawing some strength from continued worries over supply disruptions in Libya and Sudan, among other oil producing nations, traders said.

Sudan officially informed South Sudan on Tuesday that it would stop allowing its neighbor to export crude through its territory within two months.

Libya's oil output has fallen below 1 million barrels per day due to protests at fields and terminals, its state-owned oil company said.

"Geopolitical turmoil in oil producing countries, including Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya, may temper downward momentum in the near term," the IEA said in its monthly report.

As well, a tightening in global supply coupled with an increase in refinery runs could support Brent prices.

A weaker U.S. dollar also supported prices on Wednesday. The dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of six other currencies, fell as low as 80.748, its lowest since Feb. 20.

Crude oil is priced in dollars, and when the value of the currency drops, oil becomes cheaper for holders of other currencies to buy.

The oil market was also keeping its eye on the U.S. stock market and whether central bank stimulus measures would be lifted.

A Bank of Japan decision not to follow up a $1.4-trillion stimulus program announced in April has rekindled fears that other central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, could scale back stimulus efforts.

BP Plc is set to begin production on an upgraded crude distillation unit at its 405,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) Whiting, Indiana, refinery within seven to 10 days.

Traders have speculated that there may be an increase in demand for WTI relative to Brent since the refinery will likely source crude domestically rather than pull imports from the Gulf Coast.

The spread between global benchmark Brent and U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate settled at $7.61 per barrel, after trading as high as $7.38, its highest level since May 22.

Stocks of gasoline on the U.S. East Coast rose to their highest level since February 2012, according to government data. Gasoline futures settled slightly lower at $2.81 per gallon.



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