Investors Fixated on Wednesday Oil Reports

Call it a Texas tea party, or maybe a black gold moment.

Wednesday mornings have become pivotal for the stock market, as investors scour weekly government data on oil supplies, seeking clues about the future of sky-high crude prices, traders say.

The season's in vogue figures arrive from the Energy Information Administration (search) at 10:30 a.m on Wednesdays and are now so captivating they sometimes trigger a brief hush over trading desks, followed by heavy trading on the news.

The fortunes of those trading crude oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search) are closely tied to the results of the weekly survey. NYMEX prices can instantly move over $1 a barrel in either direction after unexpected builds or draws in the nation's commercial oil inventory levels.

One account from the New York Stock Exchange floor described a recent Wednesday morning pause similar to the brief break that occurs when the Federal Reserve (search) announces a change in interest rates.

Mike Driscoll, Bear Stearns managing director and veteran trader of energy stocks, said the petroleum statistics have clearly become the focus of greater attention.

"All of a sudden, crude oil is the focal issue," he said. "When I started out, it was money supply. We used to sit around after the close on Thursdays, waiting for money supply data. Then it was the trade imbalance. Right now, petroleum data is it.

"Everybody has zeroed in on it," said an equities trader at a leading brokerage, who asked not to be named. "It is way, way more important than it was a year ago."

Given the vast influence of rising crude prices on corporate earnings, consumer spending and global economic activity, this new focus on U.S. petroleum supply and demand is just the latest set of data to enthrall Wall Street.

Other reports that once highlighted the economic issues of the day but have eased back into relative obscurity as Driscoll points out, include the Federal Reserve's weekly money supply figures, the Labor Department's quarterly employment-cost index, and the monthly international trade data from the Commerce Department.

While these reports remain part of reading the economy, the emergence of costly crude oil has made petroleum statistics vitally important, the stock traders say.

"From the standpoint of an energy trader, we make hay while the sun shines," Driscoll said.