Friday, June 27, 2008

Oil climbs to new record above $142 a barrel

The associate Press

Dollar’s slump prompts investors buy oil as hedge against inflation

SINGAPORE - Oil prices climbed to a record above $142 a barrel Friday as the U.S. dollar’s protracted slump and falling stock markets prompted investors to take refuge in oil.

Prices were also lifted Thursday after OPEC’s president said crude prices could rise well above $150 a barrel this year and Libya said it may cut oil production.

Light, sweet crude for August delivery rose as high as $142.26 a barrel before pulling back to $141.40, up $1.76 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange by early afternoon European time. The contract Thursday rose $5.09 to settle at a record $139.64.

The previous trading record for a front-month contract was $139.89, set on June 16.

The rise follows a sharp fall in U.S. stocks on Thursday and in Asia on Friday. “We need to observe that financial flows were leaving the equity markets as those markets are breaking below their support levels,” said analysts at Petromatrix in Switzerland. “When money has nowhere to go, it is parked in commodities as it is one of the few investment instruments that actually rises the more money you pour into it.”

The dollar also slipped against key currencies, as U.S. data showed sluggish economic growth and pointed to a struggling labor market. Oil is priced in U.S. dollars, and some investors buy oil contracts to protect the value of their assets against accelerating inflation when the dollar falls.

“The dollar movements caused the surge in oil pricing and the bullish trend remains intact,” said Victor Shum, an energy analyst with Purvin & Gertz in Singapore. “The oil market is subject to further spikes in the coming weeks.”

On Friday, the dollar was unchanged in early afternoon European trading, with a euro buying $1.5782.

Also driving crude futures higher were remarks by Chakib Khelil, president of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, who said Thursday he believes oil prices could rise to between $150 and $170 a barrel this summer. Khelil also said prices will decline later in the year, and aren’t likely to reach $200 a barrel.

Khelil joined a long list of forecasters who have made predictions of sharply higher prices this year. Each new forecast — such as Goldman Sachs’ recent prediction that prices could rise as high as $200 — causes a jump in prices as speculative buyers are drawn into the market.

Meanwhile, the head of Libya’s national oil company said the country may cut crude production because the oil market is well supplied, according to news reports.

Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut, said in a research note that Shokri Ghanem, the nation’s top oil official, has declined to say when a decision would be made on whether to lower production, or give any indication of the size of the cut under consideration.

But analysts expressed skepticism over the comments out of Libya, saying the current level of oil prices provides an incentive for producers not to cut output.

“I doubt that any real effort in cutting output would be forthcoming, considering that pricing continues to hit new records,” Shum said. “There’s no economic reason to cut output at this time so it’s just talk.”

Oil prices have more than doubled over the past year on concerns about rising demand in fast-growing economies such as China and India, and supply disruptions in the Middle East and Nigeria.

Analysts have also attributed oil’s rapid climb to speculative buying, with traders jumping into the market purely on the expectation that futures will continue to rise.

“Even though we have continued to see weakening demand in the U.S., other markets in the developing world still show growth,” Shum said. “The tight market has empowered speculators to invest in oil and the oil market is subject to further spikes in the coming weeks.”

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures rose 6.55 cents to $3.9489 a gallon (3.8 liters) while gasoline prices rose 4.62 cents to $3.5575 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 12.4 cents to $13.372 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Brent crude futures rose $1.32 to $141.15 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

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