Jobs data indicating that U.S. economic recovery might be picking up steam finally pushed crude oil futures decisively over the stubborn $80 a barrel threshold. Nymex’s benchmark West Texas Intermediate settled Friday at $81.50 a barrel, a seven-week high, after topping $82 in intraday trading.
An unchanged unemployment rate of 9.7% and a smaller-than-expected drop in payrolls propelled both stocks and commodities higher on Friday. Earlier in the week, industry job data also came out better than expected, pushing crude just above the $80 a barrel mark.
Any improvement in the labor market would translate into more commuter driving, more vacation driving this summer and generally greater energy demand, analysts said.
The jobs figures trumped other data, such as increases in inventories, that normally dampen oil prices. Oil inventories rose by 4 million barrels in the week, well ahead of consensus forecasts for a gain of only 1 million barrels.
Remarks by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the opening of the National People's Congress on Friday expressing continued support for the economy also pushed prices higher, analysts said. Wen said the economy was on track to grow 8% this year. Recent efforts by Chinese authorities to curb bank lending have led to uncertainty about Chinese growth prospects.
But the situation in Europe with Greece’s fiscal crisis weighing on the euro continued to unsettle markets. Greece successfully placed a bond issue this week, but questions remain about the stability of the euro zone. The euro inched above the $1.36 mark in late Friday trading.
Oil prices also overcame a nearly 4% drop in natural gas prices on Thursday. The benchmark Nymex contract fell 18.2 cents on Thursday to settle at $4.575 a million British thermal units. Traders concluded that cold winter weather was now over, analysts said.
The draw-down in gas storage was only 116 billion cubic feet in previous week, less than the consensus forecast, so that total gas storage remains above the five-year average. Natural gas futures settled only marginally higher on Friday at $4.595/MMBtu.
Natural gas price trends are more often decoupled from crude oil trends as increased output of shale gas in the U.S. creates a different supply and demand situation.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has begun flexing some enforcement muscle in energy futures trading. The CFTC fined UBS for exceeding position limits in heating oil and natural gas contracts, and the U.S. Oil Fund, an exchange-traded fund, said the agency may charge it with wrongly reporting some trades.
But the UBS fine was quite small, only $130,000, and the fault in the USO reporting may lie with the broker or clearing house. Even so, commentators said these may be early signs that the CFTC will be following through on its pledge to police futures trading more carefully.
Disclosure: No positions