Oil Hits $45 as US Company News Improves

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VIENNA, Austria – Positive news from U.S. companies and economic optimism spurred by the U.S presidential inauguration boosted prices Thursday, with crude trading around $45 a barrel.

Growing expectations of rising demand from China and India also supported markets.

Light, sweet crude for March delivery jumped $1.45 to $45 a barrel by midday in Europe in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange after trading as high as $45.03.

The contract rose overnight $2.71 to settle at $43.55 after investor spirits were buoyed by better-than-expected corporate results from the U.S.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc., which owns bank National City Corp., and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. both reported profits a day after financial stocks plunged on fears that massive writedowns could spread throughout the industry.

IBM said late Tuesday it expects its earnings this year to come in above what analysts had been expecting and that its fourth-quarter profit jumped 12 percent, easily topping analysts' estimates.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 3.5 percent to 8,228 on Wednesday.

"Oil is going to depend on how the economic news comes out, particularly in America," said Gerard Rigby, an energy analyst with Fuel First Consulting in Sydney.

Oil has fallen 70 percent since peaking at $147.27 a barrel in July, but is up from a five-year low of $33.20 in December.

Investors also drew confidence from U.S. President Barack Obama taking office Tuesday, replacing George W. Bush.

"There's the Obama factor," Rigby said. "People are more optimistic that he can solve the economic problems than the previous president."

On Wednesday the Obama administration said that three quarters of the economic stimulus package_ now at $875 billion_ should be spent within 18 months to have maximum impact on jobs and taxpayers.

In another indication of where markets are headed, investors will be looking to the weekly oil inventories report to be released Thursday by the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration for insight into U.S. demand.

The report is expected to show that oil stocks rose 1.9 million barrels last week, according to the average of estimates in a survey of analysts by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

Crude inventories have risen 7.9 million barrels during the last two weeks.

The Platts survey also projects that gasoline inventories rose 1.8 million barrels and distillates dropped 2.25 million barrels last week.

Investors may be storing crude to take advantage of expected higher prices later in the year. The December contract trades at about $54 a barrel.

"It makes sense to build stocks because the market is paying for you to hold them," Rigby said. "It's likely that stocks will increase again this week."

Looking beyond the moribund U.S. energy market, JBC Energy predicted an increase in global crude oil demand for non-industrialized countries, especially China and India.

"Despite the doom and gloom driven by the crisis in the financial sector, we are cautiously optimistic about these countries," the Vienna based firm wrote in Thursday's newsletter.

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures and heating oil rose 2 cents to $1.19 a gallon and $1.40 a gallon, respectively. Natural gas for February delivery gained 3 cents to $4.80 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, the March Brent contract increased by 85 cents to $45.87 on the ICE Futures exchange.