Oil prices bounce back after early loss

June 12, 2008 2:22:42 PM PDT
Oil prices rebounded from a steep early loss to end modestly higher Thursday in another volatile session fueled by a rising dollar and concerns about supplies. Gas prices reached new record at the pump, rising to a national average of $4.06 a gallon, and are likely to keep rising. Light, sweet crude for July delivery rose 36 cents to settle at $136.74 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Prices recovered from an earlier dip as low as $131.55 on reports that Nigeria's state owned oil company will take over oil operations in parts of the country from a Royal Dutch Shell PLC joint venture, a move traders believe could cut output. Analysts said word of a possible strike by Nigerian oil workers contributed to oil's $5 rally from the day's lows, as did psychological factors: When prices failed to drop all the way to $131, many investors took that as a sign to buy.

Some analysts said gasoline futures appeared to lead the rally; rumors of refinery outages may have contributed to gas' gains. July gasoline futures rose 6.02 cents to settle at $3.526 a gallon.

Given the volatile price moves of recent days, analysts saw few signs of a changing trend in Thursday's trading. Prices have gone through several sharp swings over the past week, rising more than $16 last Thursday and Friday, falling more than $7 earlier this week, and jumping back more than $5 on Wednesday.

Analysts say oil is range trading, waiting for direction from a significant move in the dollar or change in supply and demand fundamentals.

Many analysts believe the market's overall sentiment remains bullish, and that new records are a real possibility in coming days. Oil reached its latest trading record of $139.12 on Friday.

"The price movement of crude has been ... dictated by what we've seen in the greenback," said Edward Meir, an analyst at an analyst at MF Global UK Ltd., in a research note.

On Thursday, the dollar gained ground after the Commerce Department said retail sales rose in May by the biggest amount in six months as 57 million tax rebate checks reached consumers. The 15-nation euro fell to $1.5423 from $1.5571 late Wednesday.

The dollar's strength pushed oil futures to their early lows. Investors who bought commodities such as oil to protect against inflation when the dollar was falling tend to sell when the greenback gains ground. Also, a stronger dollar makes oil more expensive to investors overseas.

The dollar's protracted decline has been a major factor behind the doubling of oil prices over the past year. Recent statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President Bush emphasizing the importance of strengthening the dollar helped the U.S. currency gain ground. But analysts believe more than words are needed to turn the tide; an actual interest rate increase is needed to send the dollar definitively higher, and oil prices down, said Stephen Schork, an analyst and trader in Villanova, Pa.

Also weighing on oil prices Thursday was a report from British-based tanker tracking firm Oil Movements saying OPEC oil shipments are on track to rise by nearly 400,000 barrels a day in June.

But oil moved off its lows when price support levels held, and gained momentum on the Nigerian news.

"Production will probably fall down after these guys take over," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp., of reports that Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. plans to take over operations from Shell in Nigeria's southern Ogoni district.

Nigeria is a major U.S. oil supplier; its output has already been significantly curtailed by years of militant violence.

At the pump, meanwhile, gas prices rose 0.8 cent overnight to a new record national average of $4.06 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Gas prices are following crude oil's recent surge, and have further to rise before they catch up.

"Gasoline hasn't kept pace with crude oil," Schork said.

Prices could rise as high as $4.25 a gallon in the short term, and would likely rise to $4.50 if oil reaches $150 a barrel, Schork said. If oil rises that high, he said, "there are going to be a lot of people in big market areas paying over $5 a gallon."

"It's going to be a painful summer for American drivers," said Eric Wittenauer, an energy futures analyst at Wachovia Securities in St. Louis.

Rising prices will put even more pressure on consumers already bucking under the effects of skyrocketing fuel and food prices. Diesel fuel, used to transport most food and consumer goods, also reached a new record of $4.794 a gallon Thursday.

In other Nymex trading, July heating oil futures fell 3.21 cents to settle at $3.9427, and July natural gas futures rose 13.8 cents to settle at $12.798 per 1,000 cubic feet after the Energy Department said inventories rose last week by 80 billion cubic feet, at the low end of analyst estimates.

In London, July Brent crude rose $1.07 to settle at $136.09 on the ICE Futures exchange.