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Oil prices hover near $97 per barrel ahead of release of US housing data

The price of oil rose was nearly unchanged Wednesday ahead of the release of U.S. housing starts for January.

Benchmark crude for April delivery was down 5 cents to $97.05 per barrel at midday Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The March contract expires Wednesday. It rose 80 cents to finish at $96.66 per barrel on the Nymex on Tuesday.

Later in the day, the U.S. Commerce Department will release housing starts for the month of January, a key gauge of the real estate industry and economy. In December, builders broke ground on houses and apartments at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 954,000. That was 12.1 percent higher than November's annual rate.

A report on Tuesday showed that confidence among homebuilders slipped, as builders remain concerned about the sturdiness of the U.S. economy and the risk of rising unemployment.

In Germany, a survey of investor confidence was upbeat on Tuesday, but traders are concerned about the possible outcome of a weekend parliamentary election in Italy. Traders are worried that a change in leadership could derail efforts to end Europe's financial crisis.

Analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong wrote in a market commentary that the polls "may yet dampen confidence so we would caution about becoming too excited."

Brent crude, used to price many international varieties of oil, was down 24 cents to $117.28 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on the Nymex:

— Heating oil rose 0.4 cent to $3.184 per gallon.

— Wholesale gasoline fell 0.4 cent to $3.311 per gallon.

— Natural gas added 0.9 cent to $3.281 per 1,000 cubic feet.