Brent crude locked above $111 ahead of China data, ECB meeting

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Brent crude futures steadied above US$111 per barrel on Tuesday, trading in a tight range, as investors opted for caution ahead of key data from China and a European Central Bank meeting this week.

Investors will be closely monitoring China's trade data for December on Thursday, as well as fourth-quarter economic growth numbers on January 18, for confirmation that the world's biggest energy consumer is on a steady but slow path to recovery.

Front-month Brent futures rose 14 cents to US$111.54 per barrel by 0253 GMT after ending mostly steady in the previous session. U.S. crude inched 6 cents higher to US$93.25 per barrel, after rising 10 cents in the last session.

The outlook for oil prices this year will be coloured by concerns that global supplies will outstrip demand, said Tony Nunan, oil risk manager for Mitsubishi Corp in Tokyo.

"The global economy is the big thing for oil prices, and it's still not clear which way it's headed," said Nunan.

"The big issues are China's growth and how OPEC manages the oversupply."

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last month forecast demand in 2013 will rise by 865,000 barrels per day while supply from non-OPEC countries, will rise by 890,000 barrels per day, driven by a jump in U.S. shale oil production.

In the short-term, however, investors will be focusing on key economic events due this week.

China's trade numbers due on Thursday may show export growth rebounded from three-month lows in December, although weak demand in the United States and Europe, the country's two biggest customers, may temper the recovery.

Fourth-quarter GDP data due next week may give a brighter picture. A Reuters poll showed that the economy may have grown 7.8 percent in October-December versus 7.4 percent in the previous quarter, snapping seven quarters of weaker expansion.

ECB policymakers will meet on Thursday as well and economists polled by Reuters were split on whether the bank will cut rates in 2013 after the regional economy shrunk for three straight quarters last year.

"Although our central scenario is benign, risks are numerous and we attach a higher probability than usual to one of them materializing in our projections," Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said in a report on Monday.

Later in January, US Federal Reserve policymakers are scheduled to meet amid talk that the bank may halt its quantitative easing in 2013, rather than 2014, sending jitters through markets.

Investors will also be awaiting inventory data from the US due Tuesday and Wednesday.

Commercial crude oil stockpiles may have fallen by 300,000 barrels on average in the week ended January 4 as Gulf Coast refiners cut imports for end-of-the-year tax purposes, a preliminary Reuters poll of four analysts showed..

The previous week's data, which showed that imports dropped by the biggest margin in a decade, had triggered worries of weak demand and sent US oil prices lower.

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