Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 10 News List

Oil prices reach all-time highs, then settle down

MARKET CONFUSION With Russian courts telling oil giant Yukos one thing one day and another the next, oil markets are at a loss to know what they can expect


World oil prices set new all-time highs before retreating as a Russian court threw another financial lifeline to troubled oil giant Yukos.

New York's light, sweet crude for delivery next month bolted to a record US$44.77 before closing at US$43.95 dollars, down 46 cents.

Brent North Sea crude oil for September shot to a record US$41.50 dollars, then closed at US$40.63 dollars, down US$0.49.

Prices were roiled by the doomed-again, saved-again saga of Russian oil titan Yukos.

A Moscow court ruled that Russian justice ministry bailiffs had no right to freeze the assets of Yuganskneftegaz, Yukos's largest oil producing subsidiary, accounting for around 60 percent of its output.

Midweek, bailiffs had thrown the oil titan a lifeline by allowing it access to bank accounts to carry on operating as it struggles to repay a massive tax bill.

The following day, the bailiffs reversed the decision, sending the world energy markets in a spin.

"People don't know how to react to the Yukos court decisions going back and forth in the last couple of days," said Wachovia analyst Jason Schenker.

The slide in prices on Friday was not too severe, however, he said.

"I think next week we'll reach more highs."

Yukos' assets were frozen last month and the company was to be sold as bailiffs tried to recover US$3.4 billion in back taxes.

Traders reacted with some confusion to the latest twist.

"The Yukos situation is not very clear," said Prudential Bache broker Tony Machacek in London.

Prices had been lifted earlier in the day by news of a fire late Thursday at a BP gasoline refinery in Houston, Texas. But BP said on Friday the refinery unit was undamaged by the fire and had resumed operations.

"I think the market briefly went higher when that news first came out but then when it was known that production was at near-capacity we sort of slipped back off again," said Machacek.

New York's contract could test US$45 a barrel within days and even breach US$50 during the US and European winter, some analysts said.

"We're expecting prices to come off in the third quarter, but there remains a possibility that this winter, if we have a supply loss or if simply demand doesn't slow down, then at some times you could see [the New York contract] test US$50," said Societe Generale economist Deborah White.

Traders largely shrugged at OPEC's latest assurances that it was on standby to increase oil supplies by up to 1.5 million barrels per day to help cool prices.

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