NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil prices ended mixed in choppy trading on Thursday as weaker-than-expected Chinese trade data, higher OPEC production and evidence of a strengthening U.S. jobs market muddied the oil demand outlook.
China, the world’s second largest oil consumer after the United States, reported that its exports and imports in April grow at a far slower rate than forecast.
Its trade performance that month was also surprisingly weak, and analysts said the government would need to loosen monetary policy to spur expansion or risk missing annual growth targets.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said it pumped 1.62 million barrels more per day, to 31.62 million bpd last month, as Iraq ramped up output and Libya’s oil industry recovered. That’s above the 30 million bpd target it had set in December.
New U.S. claims for jobless benefits edged down last week, against forecasts for an increase, somewhat calming fears that the labor market was stagnating after surprisingly weak employment growth in April.
The U.S. stock market rebounded after a string of losses, prodding some investors to increase bets on commodities such as oil and copper, though the weak Chinese data and strong OPEC production kept U.S. crude’s gains limited. [.N] <USD/>
Some worries about the euro zone debt crisis eased, which helped U.S. crude push higher and limited Brent’s slide. The European Financial Stability Facility late Wednesday agreed to release a scheduled bailout payment to Greece, which avoided a funding crisis for the debt-laden country.
Anxiety about the Greek situation eased after euro zone officials said the region was prepared to keep financing the country until it forms a new government, even if new elections must be held.
“Basically, the oil markets are watching Europe and looking for what will happen next, which is not easy to predict,” said Mark Waggoner, president of Excel Futures in Bend, Oregon.
“Crude was ambivalent today, though it got some support from equities, but traders are waiting for the Seaway pipeline reversal and that is expected push up U.S. crude,” he added.
Crude futures have been on a downtrend after hitting highs for the year in early March — $128.40 for Brent and $110.55 for U.S. crude. Investors have been weighing worries about potential Iran supply disruptions against rising stockpiles and weaker economies in developed countries that have cut into oil demand.
In London, ICE Brent crude for June settled down 47 cents at $112.73 a barrel, falling back after a rebound on Wednesday which had ended five straight days of losses.
Brent’s Relative Strength Index (RSI) dropped to 27.794 on Thursday from more than 29 on Wednesday, after slipping Friday below the 30 threshold that indicates an oversold condition.
U.S. crude rose 27 cents to settle at $97.08, stemming a six-day losing streak that had reduced the front-month June crude’s value by 8.8 percent.
U.S. crude’s RSI rose to 31.459 on Thursday, after the stretch of losses put it slightly below the oversold benchmark of 30 in late trading on Wednesday. U.S. crude’s RSI stood at 54.392 on May 2, when the most recent extended selloff began.
Brent’s premium against U.S. crude narrowed to $15.65 at the close, after rising earlier to $16.85, the widest since April 16. On that day, owners of the U.S. Seaway Pipeline announced they would reverse its flow ahead of schedule, a move seen easing the glut in U.S. Midwest crude inventories.
The premium had risen five straight days, hitting $16.39 on Wednesday, before narrowing on Thursday.
“There’s profit-taking going on in the spreads,” said Mark Anderle, broker at TAC Energy in Dallas, Texas.
Seaway will carry 150,000 bpd of crude from Cushing Oklahoma, the delivery hub of the U.S. crude contract, to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The first crude was scheduled to go into the pipeline by next week.
The Brent spread against U.S. crude has been widening despite the Seaway’s imminent reversal as crude has continued to rise at Cushing, hitting another record high last week at the NYMEX hub. <EIA/S>
Trading volumes were slightly lower, with Brent trading 2 percent lower than its 30-day average and U.S. crude dealings down 9 percent from its 30-day average, according to Reuters data.
Additional reporting by Robert Gibbons in New York, Julia Payne and David Sheppard in London; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Jim Marshall and David Gregorio