NEW YORK Oil prices broke back above $100 a barrel as investors sought a haven from the financial sector's turmoil, but crude later gave back its gains as the tenuous state of the global economy raised concerns about future demand.
Light, sweet crude for October delivery was down 47 cents at $96.70 a barrel in afternoon trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Earlier, the contract reached as high as $102.24 as worries intensified about the stability of the U.S. financial system and investors fled the equities market in favor of commodities.
"It's interesting to me that traders would view a commodity such as oil that can move up and down by 40 percent in six months as a safe haven," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Ill. "I certainly wouldn't recommend it as such."
Ritterbusch expects worldwide demand deterioration to ultimately trump the temporary flight to quality. Oil prices have steadily fallen since reaching an all-time high of $147.27 a barrel on July 11 as investors fear a weakening economy could curb demand for the commodity. Last Friday, oil had fallen below $100 for the first time since April.
New liquidity injected into the global financial system Thursday also helped to calm markets, said Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.
On Thursday, the Federal Reserve along with other foreign central banks pumped as much as $180 billion into global money markets in an effort to stem a worsening global credit crisis. The emergency measure follows a week of chaos on Wall Street that saw the demise of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the forced takeover of Merrill Lynch and Co., and the unprecedented government bailout of American International Group Inc.
Oil had jumped Wednesday as investors fled equities to crude, gold and other commodities as a short-term safe haven amid global market unrest.
Stepped-up attacks by Nigerian militants against the country's oil infrastructure helped support oil prices earlier Thursday. In a fifth day of violence, Nigeria's main militant group said Wednesday that it had destroyed an oil-pumping station and a pipeline crossing southern Nigeria in a rare daylight attack.
A spokesman for Nigeria's state oil company said Wednesday that militant attacks are now cutting the country's daily oil production by about 1 million barrels a day, 40 percent of what the country produced before the militant campaign began three years ago.
"In the last few days, militant attacks in Nigeria have been stirring up again, but that's on the back burner right now," said Victor Shum, an energy analyst with consultancy Gertz & Purvin in Singapore. "I see downward pressure on oil in the near-term, with the key support level at US$90."
Meanwhile, the U.S. government reported Wednesday a bigger-than-expected drop in crude supplies, reflecting the shutdown of virtually all Gulf Coast oil production because of Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav.
The Energy Information Administration said U.S. crude stocks fell by 6.3 million barrels for the week ending Sept. 12, much bigger than the 3.7 million barrel drop expected by analysts surveyed by the energy research firm Platts.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell nearly 2 cents to $2.7685 a gallon, while gasoline prices lost 2.56 cents to $2.40 a gallon. Natural gas for October delivery slipped 5.39 cents to $7.484 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, November Brent crude declined 11 cents to $94.73 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.