OIL FUTURES: Oil Steady; Cautious Ahead of Oil Data Reports

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NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--Crude oil futures are flat Tuesday, as the market digests Monday's lofty gains on an upbeat outlook for the economy. However, some caution exists ahead of key U.S. oil inventory data reports due out late Tuesday and Wednesday.

Light, sweet crude for May delivery recently traded 15 cents, or 0.2%, higher at $82.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange traded 15 cents, or 0.2%, higher at $81.32 a barrel.

Prices have become caught in a narrow range so far Tuesday and are still holding below $83 a barrel. "Some of the factors that have been influencing the market are fairly flat, such as the dollar, while equities are just slightly higher," said Addison Armstrong, analyst with Tradition Energy in Stamford, Conn. A weaker dollar against the euro had contributed to Monday's near 3% surge in oil prices, as a weaker greenback tends to lift oil as it makes the dollar-denominated commodity cheaper for buyers that hold other currencies.

Armstrong also noted that Monday's rise was likely due to some book squaring by traders as they positioned themselves at the end of the first-quarter trading period.

"We need some sort of news to get as out of that range," Armstrong said. "We could remain rangebound at least through to the inventory data."

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, will release its oil inventory data report late Tuesday; the more widely anticipated U.S. Energy Information Administration will release its report Wednesday.

Analysts are projecting a 2.3-million-barrel build in crude stocks. Gasoline inventories are seen falling 1.4 million barrels and distillates, which include diesel and heating oil, are expected to decline 1.3 million barrels.

As the U.S. driving season fast approached, traders closely will be monitoring the level of gasoline stocks, the rate of gasoline production and signs of improved demand

Analysts also said the focus on the market is increasingly on economic growth and the ability of that to restore oil-demand growth in some of the developed countries, such as the U.S., where it has been lagging.

The most anticipated economic figure this week will be Friday's employment rate in the U.S. Expectations are that March payrolls, a significant indicator of recovery in the U.S., will show a strong gain,

"We could see a lot of juggling (in the oil market) between now and then as traders position themselves ahead of the market," said Carl Larry of Oil Outlooks and Opinions in Houston.

He said this is an odd week in that the jobs data will come out on a day when the oil market is closed in observance of Good Friday.

If prices do move higher and revisit the $83-a-barrel level last reached March 17, the next target could be $83.95, the high of 2010 so far, which was set on Jan 11.

Front-month April reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, recently traded 0.04 cents lower at $2.2609 a gallon. April heating oil recently traded 0.12 cents, or 0.1%, higher at $2.1200 a gallon.


-By Claire Rangel, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2846; claire.rangel@dowjones.com



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