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Thu 23 Aug 2012 10:21 AM

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Brent nears $116 on Fed hopes, shrugs off China data

Brent crude rose more than a dollar on Thursday, approaching $116 per barrel

Brent nears $116 on Fed hopes, shrugs off China data

Brent crude rose more than a dollar on Thursday, approaching US$116 per barrel on renewed hopes for another round of monetary stimulus by the US Federal Reserve, helping investors look past weak manufacturing data from China.

The prospect of further economic stimulus from the Fed should boost the outlook for demand from the world's top oil consumer, although more evidence of a slowdown in China, the second biggest user, could limit price gains.

Brent October futures rose 96 to US$115.88 a barrel at 0443 GMT, rising for a third straight session. US crude was up 79 cents at US$98.05 per barrel, off a three-month high of US$98.17 earlier in the session.

"We are in the midst of the US holiday season, when demand for oil is high, and the added impetus is the prospect of stimulus," said Jonathan Barratt, CEO of BarrattBulletin, a Sydney-based commodity research firm.

Minutes from the latest meeting of Fed policymakers released on Wednesday suggested that the US central bank is likely to deliver another round of monetary stimulus "fairly soon" unless the economy improves considerably.

The Fed's policy has been fairly dovish, given that overnight interest rates are near zero and it has bought US$2.3trn in US government debt and mortgage-related bonds to push borrowing costs lower. It has said it does not expect to raise rates until late-2014 at the earliest.

Further stimulus may weaken the dollar, which in turn will spur prices of all commodities, while any boost to the US economy from the stimulus may also drive up demand for oil.

Crude futures pared some gains after disappointing data from China signalled that a persistent slowdown in the world's biggest energy consumer has extended into the third quarter.

The HSBC Flash China manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) fell to 47.8 in August, its lowest level since November, from 49.5 in July.

After hovering for several months just under the 50 mark that divides expansion from contraction, the index is now at levels rarely seen since the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

The weak data adds to worries that have been lingering because of the European debt crisis.

Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker kept alive Greek hopes of winning more time to push through austerity cuts but warned the country was staring at its "last chance" to avoid bankruptcy.

Greece's prime minister will meet leaders of Germany and France this week to seek concessions in some terms of the bailout agreement.

However, initial signs suggest that both leaders may offer little leeway and expect him to stick to the original terms.

Worries about oil supply remain amid continued unrest in the Middle East, with increasing violence in Syria and tensions between Iran and western nations nowhere near resolution.

The Syrian army this week used tanks and helicopter gunships in an offensive around the capital of Damascus that coincided with the departure of UN military observers, whose mission to stop bloodshed and nudge Syria towards a peaceful transition was a failure.

The chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, which will resume talks with Iran on Friday over its disputed nuclear programme, played down chances of a breakthrough. The dispute has led to sanctions by the US and European Union on shipments from Iran and has driven up crude prices.

Brent prices also remain supported by an expected cut in North Sea oil production related to maintenance.

However, initial estimates of the output cut may be revised downwards after tweaks to August and September export schedules, boosting supply of crude from the home of the global Brent oil benchmark.

Investors were also focusing on US data that showed crude inventory fell sharply last week.

US crude oil stockpiles dropped 5.41m barrels to 360.75m barrels in the week ended on Friday, amid a drop in crude imports, the Energy Information Administration reported. Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast a smaller drop of 400,000 barrels.

The data followed a late Tuesday report by industry group American Petroleum Institute that showed crude stockpiles had fallen 6m barrels last week.

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