Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Speculators, hedge funds turning back to oil, analysts say

AP , WASHINGTON

Crude oil futures rallied more than US$1 a barrel on Friday and the price of natural gas regained some ground after sinking a day earlier to its lowest level in four-and-a-half months.

Light sweet crude for February delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose US$1.42 to settle at US$64.21 a barrel. In London, Brent crude gained US$1.59 to settle at US$62.72 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

Many factors have propelled oil prices from an average of US$19.73 per barrel back in January 2002 to where it is today.

Strong global demand and a thin supply cushion are the underlying reasons, analysts say, and because of these conditions every output disruption -- or potential threat to disruption -- feeds into a bullish outlook, sending prices higher. The war in Iraq, labor unrest in Nigeria and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes are just a few of production snags the industry has faced in recent years.

But many analysts say the quick rise in oil prices at the start of this year has little to do with any change in the fundamental balance between supply and demand. Instead, they point to a 7 percent surge in the number of Nymex crude-oil contracts opened in the first two trading days of the year as a sign that hedge funds and other speculators continue to pour money into the market.

"There's an element of investment money where they could just as easily be trading GM, euros or oil, and those are the people that have come back into the market early in 2006," said oil-market consultant Peter Beutel of New Canaan, Connecticut-based Cameron Hanover Inc.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with supply and demand," Beutel said, though from a technical trading standpoint it is a very bullish trend.

Natural gas futures rose US$0.133 to settle at US$9.632 per 1,000 cubic feet, retracing territory lost a day earlier as mild US weather tempered traders' supply concerns and the US Energy Department released data that showed a surprising increase in natural gas inventories last week.

February natural gas futures settled at US$9.499 on Thursday, the lowest settlement for the front-month contract since Aug. 19, when futures closed at US$9.111. Nymex heating oil climbed US$0.0125 to US$1.8006 a gallon on Friday and gasoline futures rose US$0.0285 to US$1.8155 a gallon.

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