NEW YORK Oil prices shot up more than $11 to a new record above $139 Friday after Morgan Stanley predicted prices would hit $150 by the Fourth of July. The unprecedented jump is all but certain to drive gas prices well past the $4 mark in the coming weeks.
Oil's meteoric surge, which pushed prices more than 8 percent higher in a single day, added to a huge increase Thursday to cap oil's biggest two-day gain in the history of the New York Mercantile Exchange. The burst higher which also came on rising Middle East tensions also raised the prospect of accelerating inflation by adding to already strained transportation costs.
That gloomy outlook sent stocks tumbling, taking the Dow Jones industrials down more than 300 points.
Light, sweet crude for July delivery jumped as high as $139.12 on the Nymex, before easing slightly to settle at $138.54, up $10.75. Prices hit a previous record of $135.09 a barrel on May 22, and settled Thursday at $127.79.
Prices pushed sharply higher Friday after Morgan Stanley analyst Ole Slorer predicted strong demand in Asia could drive prices to $150 by Independence Day, when millions of Americans are expected to take to the roads. Slorer said shipments from the Middle East are mimicking patterns seen in the third quarter last year, when Morgan Stanley based an oil price spike prediction on falling supplies in the Atlantic.
"We made the same call using the same parameters, but now we are starting from much lower inventory levels," Slorer said.
Traders also zeroed in on remarks by an Israeli Cabinet minister, who was quoted as saying his country will attack Iran if it doesn't abandon its nuclear program. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz added that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "will disappear before Israel does," the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.
Iran is the second-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and traders worry that any conflict with Israel could disrupt global supplies.
A further weakening of the dollar also helped send oil prices higher by enticing overseas buyers armed with stronger currencies and others looking for a hedge against the greenback. But it also represented a stampede by bullish traders and optimistic computer models betting that prices still have further to rise.
Friday's surge builds on a $5.49 gain Thursday, which was the biggest single-day price increase in the history of the Nymex crude contract. That spike came as the dollar fell after the European Central Bank suggesting it could raise interest rates.
"With oil pushing back up to the mid-$130s, it's the make it or break it point. If we go past that, we set the course for uncharted waters and head up toward $150," said Stephen Schork, an analyst and trader in Villanova, Pa. "
Meanwhile, U.S. gas prices at the pump continued to hover just shy of an average $4 a gallon, easing only 0.3 cent from Thursday's record.
Drivers are now paying an average of $3.99 for a gallon of regular gas nationwide, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service; in many parts of the country, consumers are already paying well over $4. Retail diesel slipped a penny overnight to $4.76.
Pump prices are bound to rise even further if oil sustains its advance. James Cordier, president of Tampa, Fla.-based trading firm Liberty Trading Group, predicted prices could rise to $4.25 as early as the end of the month.
"Unfortunately, drivers cutting back isn't going to lower the price of gasoline any time soon," he said.
The dramatic reversal in what had been a weakening oil market began Thursday after ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet suggested the bank could raise interest rates and the euro climbed against the dollar. When interest rates rise in Europe, or fall in the U.S., the dollar tends to weaken against the euro.
Many traders buy commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation when the dollar is falling, and a weaker dollar makes oil cheaper for investors dealing in other currencies. Analysts believe the dollar's protracted decline has been a major reason why oil prices have nearly doubled in the past year.
The euro strengthened further against the greenback Friday. A Labor Department report showing the U.S. unemployment rate jumped half a percentage point to 5.5 percent last month its biggest monthly increase since 1986 could drag the dollar even lower in the days ahead.
"Unemployment jumping as it did today will be in the market for a long time and will continue to pressure the U.S. dollar," Cordier said.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures rose 23.72 cents to $3.918 a gallon while gasoline prices rose 15.7 cents to $3.4915 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 25 cents to $12.769 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, July Brent crude shot up $7.75 to $135.30 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.