Crude Prices Plunge on Weak Data

Oil fell to a three-week low around $114 a barrel on Thursday, hit by weak euro zone economic data, dampening the prospect of an early recovery and concern the U.S. Federal Reserve might end its stimulus programme sooner than thought.

The drop extended Brent crude's largest one-day slide in 2013 on Wednesday, alongside declines in other commodities and equities.

Brent crude fell as low as $113.34, the lowest intra-day since the end of January. It pared losses slightly after U.S. government data showed a bigger-than-expected drop in gasoline and distillates stocks to trade down $1.50 at $114.10 a barrel as of 1630 GMT.

U.S. crude dropped by $2.04 to $93.18.

"Yesterday was a major sell-off, not just in oil but in other commodities," said Tony Machacek, a broker at Jefferies Bache in London. "We've come off a long way, and just looking at the charts, Brent could come down to the $113 area."

Since mid-December, hedge funds and other large speculators have nearly doubled their bets that oil prices will rise, amassing positions in Brent and U.S. crude futures and options equivalent to around 440 million barrels of oil, regulatory and exchange data show.

The price of Brent rose by $10 a barrel in the first six weeks of 2013 to hit a nine-month high above $119 on Feb. 8 as signs of strong demand from China and lower Saudi supply raised expectations of a tighter market.

"Brent was overbought amid overwhelming investor interest, an increased geopolitical premium and bullish macro sentiment, while short-term fundamentals simply do not justify sustained gains past $120," said Andrey Kryuchenkov, an analyst at VTB Capital in London.

A key level of technical support for Brent on Thursday was around $113.10, the 50-day moving average and the lower Bollinger band, said Olivier Jakob, an analyst at Petromatrix. Another to watch was $113.07, the low from Jan. 29.

Brent's price decline stopped short of that zone of support by Thursday afternoon, while U.S. crude traded below its own 50-day moving average for the first time since December.


Equities and the euro also fell sharply on Thursday as surveys showed the downturn in the euro-zone's businesses worsened unexpectedly this month.

Economists had forecast the euro zone purchasing managers' indexes (PMIs) would add to tentative signs a recovery was under way, but instead they pointed to a first-quarter contraction of up to 0.3 percent.

The U.S. Labor Department said on Thursday initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000 last week, but still held at levels consistent with a steady improvement in labour market conditions.

On Wednesday, minutes of the Federal Reserve's last policy meeting cast doubt over how much longer the U.S. central bank would stick to its stimulus plan, leading to declines in the euro, equities and commodities.

A day earlier, oil industry sources said top world oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which cut supplies in the last two months of 2012, could raise its output in the second quarter to satisfy higher demand.

Investors also assessed the prospect of reduced tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear work. A Western diplomat said on Wednesday major powers were ready to make "a substantial and serious offer" to Iran during talks next week.

Slightly offseting the bearish sentiment, U.S. refined fuel inventories fell more than expected in the week to Feb. 15, U.S. government data from the Energy Information Administration showed on Thursday, although U.S. crude inventories rose as refineries processed less oil and imports rose.