Oil Slides below $68 as Demand Ebbs

HOUSTON – Oil prices dipped below $66 a barrel Wednesday as investor sentiment once again seemed to shift to the growing global economic malaise and its potential impact on energy demand. Gasoline prices continued to tumble.

A day after oil staged an Election Day rally, even indications that OPEC was acting on an earlier pledge to pull 1.5 million barrels of crude a day from the market failed to support prices.

Light, sweet crude for December delivery fell $4.83 to $65.70 a barrel in middday trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices fell despite a rally in Asian stock markets after the U.S. presidential election was settled, and Barack Obama became the nation's first black leader.

Oil prices surged above $70 a barrel for the first time in nearly two weeks Tuesday, mirroring global stock markets that strengthened in the U.S., Asia and Europe.

That one-day rally, however, "did not eliminate pervasive fears of a protracted global economic slowdown," Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy, said in a note Wednesday morning.

Oil prices have tended to mimic U.S. equities markets of late, and Wednesday was no different. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 95 points in late morning trading.

On the supply front, U.S. crude inventories remained stable after rising the previous five periods, while gasoline stockpiles rose unexpectedly, according to government data released Wednesday.

For the week ended Oct. 31, crude-oil inventories remained at 311.9 million barrels, 1.5 percent above year-ago levels, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report.

Analysts had expected a boost of 500,000 barrels, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

Gasoline inventories rose by 1.1 million barrels, or 0.6 percent, to 196.1 million barrels, which is 1.3 percent below year-ago levels. Analysts expected stockpiles of the motor fuel to fall by 1.1 million barrels.

Demand for gasoline over the four weeks ended Oct. 31 was 2.3 percent lower than a year earlier, the report said.

However, many analysts point to a steady recovery in demand, largely from the dramatic decline in gasoline prices in the past several weeks.

Gasoline fell again overnight, dipping a couple of cents to a national average of $2.365 for a gallon of regular unleaded, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. The average price has fallen 33 percent in the past month and, according to AAA, could be headed to $2 a gallon nationally by year's end.

Economic indicators out of the U.S. this week suggest the world's largest economy may be heading for its worst recession in decades. A Commerce Department report Tuesday said factory orders fell 2.5 percent in September from August, much worse than analysts had predicted.

On Monday, U.S. manufacturers reported poor figures for October, showing the worst reading in more than a quarter century, according to the Institute for Supply Management.

The slowdown, sparked by a credit crisis that began last year, shows signs of spreading across the world.

"There are two forces working on the oil price," said David Moore, a commodity strategist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney. "One is fear of weaker consumption, and the other is OPEC cutting output to wind back surpluses in the market."

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said last month it would cut output quotas by 1.5 million barrels a day along with a 520,000 barrel cut announced earlier. Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez has said OPEC, which controls about 40 percent of world crude oil production, may slash production by at least 1 million barrels daily when it meets next in December.

"It's not yet clear that OPEC is disciplined in cutting production," Moore said. "Compliance will be a key issue going forward."

Oil prices have fallen by about 55 percent since peaking at $147.27 a barrel in mid-July.

Some industry experts pegged Wednesday's crude-price drop to a stronger dollar.

Commodities such as oil are used as a hedge against inflation and a weak dollar. Investors flood the crude futures market when the greenback falls. A weak dollar also makes oil less expensive to buyers dealing in other currencies.

The U.S. dollar was mostly higher against other major currencies Wednesday.

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures fell more than 9 cents to fetch $1.44 a gallon, heating oil plunged more than 11 cents to $2.05 a gallon and natural gas for December delivery fell 2 cents to trade at $7.20 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, December Brent crude fell $4.71 to $61.73 on the ICE Futures exchange.