WASHINGTON – Oil prices rose slightly on Friday, ending the week almost four percent higher following several days of volatile trading in which brokers tried to handicap the likelihood, and possible timing, of an OPEC production cut.
Many oil traders are convinced that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which decided earlier this month to leave its output quota unchanged, would be likely to rein in production — either officially or unofficially — if crude-oil futures slide much below $60 a barrel.
Fimat USA analyst Antoine Halff said in a research note that this type of market chatter "has replaced speculation about military strikes on Iran" as the latest rationale for propping up prices. However, Halff said he doubts the Vienna-based cartel would take any action before its December meeting.
On Friday, Light sweet crude for November delivery rose 15 cents to settle at $62.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, November Brent crude futures slid 6 cents to settle at $62.48 a barrel.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures dropped by 2.92 cents to settle at $1.6846 a gallon, while unleaded gasoline futures rose 4.81 cents to settle at $1.5492 a gallon.
Despite the week-on-week price increase, oil prices are 20 percent below the mid-July intraday high above $78 a barrel. Rising inventories of crude oil, weakening economic growth in the U.S. and less fear about hurricane-related supply disruptions in the Gulf of Mexico have all contributed to the decline.
While the diplomatic standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions has not been resolved, the oil market has become convinced that potential sanctions against Iran — and any retaliatory removal of oil from the world market — are not imminent.
And for the moment, at least, energy supplies in the world's largest consuming nation are abundant.
The Energy Department said this week that crude oil inventories stand at 324.8 million barrels, or 5 percent more than last year; gasoline inventories stand at 213.9 million barrels, or 9 percent above year-ago levels; and supplies of distillate, which includes heating oil and diesel, stand at 151.3 million barrels, or 15 percent above year-ago levels.
Natural gas inventories are also soaring. In Nymex trading Friday, November natural-gas futures rose 26 cents to $5.654 per 1,000 cubic feet. A year ago natural gas futures traded above $14.
To be sure, crude-oil futures are still high by historical standards.
Just three years ago, oil cost half as much as it does today. Since then, however, worldwide output has not reached its full potential due to instability in Iraq and Nigeria and hurricane damage in the Gulf of Mexico, and consumption growth in China and India has outpaced earlier expectations.
U.S. demand, meanwhile, has been surprisingly resilient despite average nationwide pump prices that briefly surpassed $3 a gallon twice in the past two years. More recently, gasoline prices have plummeted to an average $2.33 a gallon.
In a sign that high energy prices may be taking a toll on the U.S. economy, the Commerce Department reported Friday that consumer spending, after adjusting for inflation, dropped by 0.1 percent last month, the first decline since September 2005, a month when business activity was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina.
Wood Mackenzie analyst Ann-Louise Hittle said that the fundamental balance between supply and demand "hasn't changed that much" over the 11-week period in which oil prices tumbled from the July 14 peak of $78.40.
"It's just that the geopolitical fears in the market have eased," she said. "There was no outright physical shortage of crude at $78. There was adequate supply."