Oil slips below $74 as U.S. driving season ends

By Christopher Johnson

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – U.S. oil prices slipped below $74 per barrel on Monday as the end of the U.S. driving season and high levels of unemployment in the world’s biggest oil consumer raised concerns over the outlook for demand.

The U.S. Labor Day holiday, which marks the traditional end of American summer holidays when gasoline demand peaks, kept volume low in many markets.

The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), home to benchmark U.S. crude futures also known as West Texas Intermediate or WTI, will combine trades from Sunday, Monday and Tuesday into one trading session, with a single settlement at Tuesday’s close.

U.S. crude for October delivery was down 65 cents at $73.95 a barrel by 1638 GMT (12:38 p.m. EDT).

ICE Brent was stronger, falling only 3 cents at $76.64 with traders saying the supply-demand picture looked a little more positive in Europe than in the United States.

“The U.S. (oil futures) complex is coming under considerable pressure from the end of the driving season and the high inventory levels, while bearish employment data continues to undermine hopes of economic recovery,” said David Wech, head of energy studies at Vienna-based consultants JBC Energy.

“I don’t see any immediate signs of an upside. All the fundamental factors look very weak,” Wech added.

While U.S. gasoline demand accounts for more than 10 percent of the world’s oil use, U.S. refiners are set to cut the amount of crude they process in coming weeks as they enter autumn maintenance, in preparation to crank up output of winter fuels.

Front-month U.S. crude has traded between $64.24 and $87.15 this year, posting its high in early May and the low later that month as the European credit crisis rattled markets.

Prices have mostly stayed between $70 and $80, a range that OPEC producers say is high enough to foster investment in capacity expansion and low enough to sustain economic recovery.

DEMAND EXPECTATIONS

World stocks rose on Monday on hopes the U.S. can avoid slipping back into recession, although the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist warned of weak growth in both the United States and Europe.

The correlation between oil and equities has fallen in the last two sessions as the fundamentals of an oversupplied oil market weigh on sentiment.

“The fact oil prices have not profited from friendly equity markets, and the weaker dollar has to be seen as a sign of weakness,” said Carsten Fritsch, analyst at Commerzbank.

“There is evidently concern that oil demand in the world’s largest oil consuming country, the United States, will drop as the summer driving season comes to an end today, which may lead to a further rise in already high inventories.”

Equities markets have focused on hopes for economic growth and supported oil in recent months despite a build in U.S. oil inventories for record levels. U.S. petroleum stockpiles are at their highest level since weekly figures were collated in 1990.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch said it had cut its U.S. GDP growth numbers to 1.8 percent for 2011 from the earlier 2.3 percent but added that oil could find some support from ample liquidity in the financial markets and strong emerging markets data.

“OPEC is no longer adding barrels to the market, and G3 central banks indicate ample liquidity conditions ahead. Still, high oil stocks and decelerating cyclical conditions in the U.S. are creating some downside risks to prices in the short run,” BofAML said in a research note.

Saudi Arabia raised its official selling prices (OSPs) for benchmark Arab Light and other grades to customers in Asia, the U.S. and Europe in October, state oil company Saudi Aramco said on Sunday.

Christophe Barret, an oil analyst at Credit Agricole, said he expected oil prices to stay close to $75 for some time:

“Right now the level around $75 is pretty reasonable,” he said. “I think that until we get some big oversupply or a big rebound in demand, we will not move from the range of $75-$80.”

But many investors are pessimistic on the short-term outlook. Money managers cut net-long positions in crude oil on the NYMEX for a fourth consecutive week, an indication that investors are decreasing bets that prices will rise.

(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London and Alejandro Barbajosa in Singapore; editing by Jane Baird)

Oil slips below $74 as U.S. driving season ends