Oil futures: Nymex crude slightly higher as gasoline rises

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Crude futures were slightly higher Thursday, held by the competing issues of rising gasoline prices and weaker economic data.

Light, sweet crude for June delivery recently traded 14 cents, or 0.1%, higher at $112.90 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange traded 29 cents higher at $125.42 a barrel.

Gasoline prices, which hit 33-month highs Wednesday, have helped pull crude higher as traders expect more production of the fuel to meet increasing demand heading into the important summer-driving season. But the gains were muted by signs of slowing U.S. economic growth.

The U.S. economy hit the brakes in the first three months of 2011 due to rising prices, the Commerce Department said Thursday, as gross domestic product rose 1.8% in the first quarter. The increase was a significant slowdown from fourth-quarter GDP growth of 3.1%. Additionally, jobless claims rose unexpectedly, the Labor Department said Thursday, which could mean fewer workers driving to work or taking long trip through the summer.

Initial jobless claims increased by 25,000 to a seasonally adjusted 429,000 last week.

"Jobless claims is probably what's holding us," said Zachary Oxman, managing director of Trendmax Futures. "If we get disappointing numbers, we get the idea that demand could fall even further. Gas prices are at very high levels right now, so there could be a significant reaction to any economic change. But this looks pretty much just like a pause."

Front-month May reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, were recently up 3.56 cents, or 1%, to $3.4550 a gallon. May heating oil recently traded 0.3 cent higher at $3.2364 a gallon.

Fuel products have continued their march higher after data from the U.S. Department of Energy released Wednesday showed a greater-than-expected fall in gasoline stocks, alleviating fears that high prices were damaging demand.

Gasoline fell by 2.5 million barrels to 205.6 million barrels, compared with a 1.1 million barrel drop expected by analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires.

Meanwhile, comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Wednesday that suggested the central bank wouldn't act to try and control energy price increases continued to lend support to prices.

Speaking at a press conference following the Federal Open Market Committee's meeting on interest rates Wednesday, Bernanke said growing demand from emerging markets and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa mean the Fed can do little go control spikes in food and energy prices.

Traders are also keeping watch on ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. Libya remains locked in a stalemate, with reports that cargoes of oil are beginning to trickle out of the country, doing little to convince investors that its full 1.3 million barrels a day of exports will return to the market anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is worsening. Hundreds of members of Syria's ruling party have quit over the use of force against protesters, and fighting has been reported between soldiers and elite troops, indicating growing cracks among loyalists to the Assad regime.

"An escalation of violence in Syria holds potential for shaving off approximately 350,000 b/d of crude production," said JBC Energy in a note.

However, the majority of the crude exports are heavy and sour Souedie crude, much more easily replaceable than the high quality, light, sweet crude found in Libya, it added.

--Sarah Kent contributed to this report.


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