Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oil falls to near $36 on weak US crude demand

SINGAPORE — Asian stock markets tumbled today, with Japan’s benchmark sliding almost 5 percent, on gloomy U.S. holiday sales and renewed concerns about the banking industry.

Every market across Asian suffered steep declines, with broad-based selling hitting industries from energy to financials to exporters. The dollar slid further against the yen, and oil prices continued to fall on worries that the global economic slump will further weaken demand for crude.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery was down 59 cents at $36.69 a barrel by afternoon in Singapore in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 50 cents overnight to settle at $37.28.

Prices have fallen 27 percent since last week and analysts say they may test a five-year low reached last month of $33.87 a barrel.

U.S. oil inventories have been rising for months, proof the current recession is biting into demand for crude products. The Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that crude inventories grew by 1.2 million barrels for the week ended Friday after jumping 6.7 million barrels the previous week.

Gasoline inventories rose by 2.1 million barrels and distillates increased by 6.4 million barrels.

“It just points to the doom and gloom in the American economy,” said Gerard Rigby, an energy analyst with Fuel First Consulting in Sydney.

Investors were also dismayed by bad retail numbers. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that retail sales dropped 2.7 percent last month, more than double the 1.2 percent decline that analysts expected.

The Dow Jones industrial average, which oil traders monitor as a barometer of investor sentiment about the U.S. economy’s prospects, fell 2.9 percent on Wednesday.

Investors remain optimistic the price of oil will rise later in the year, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries continues to implement 4.2 million of output cuts announced since September.

The May contract trades at $50.48 a barrel.

“OPEC is cutting and that should start impacting inventories,” Rigby said. “Economies will start turning around, and I think demand is bottoming out.”

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures fell 1.67 cents to $1.15 a gallon. Heating oil slid 2.08 cent to $1.44 a gallon while natural gas for February delivery was steady at $4.97 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, February Brent crude fell 75 cents to $44.33 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 stock average fell 415.14 points, or 4.9 percent, to 8,023.31, with sentiment further hurt by new figures showing that Japanese machinery orders, a closely watched indicator of corporate spending, plunged in November.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index fell 3.1 percent to 13,287.19 after earlier sinking about 5 percent. South Korea’s Kospi dived 6 percent to 1,111.34 while markets in Australia and Taiwan fell more than 4 percent. Singapore’s benchmark was down over 3 percent but Shanghai stocks were only slightly lower.