Oil in Retreat With U.S. Economic Data Flagging Spotty Rebound

Oil fell the most in a week with a sluggish U.S. labor market compounding concerns that demand will remain weak.

Futures in New York declined 0.8% on Thursday, retreating from a five-month high. Applications for U.S.unemployment benefits unexpectedly increased last week, boding poorly for fuel consumption as millions of Americans remain out of work.

Magnifying the dour view for a pickup in demand, minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve said the pandemic wouldweigh heavily on economic activity. OPEC+ also warned at a meeting Wednesday that the pace of thedemand rebound was slower than expected and at risk from a prolonged second wave of the coronavirus.

The rise in U.S. jobless claims “put a damper on sentiment,” weighing on crude futures, said Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas SA in London. “The faster the recovery in the job market, the quicker U.S. gasoline demand will get back on its feet.”

U.S. benchmark futures have rebounded from negative territory in April, but are still having difficulty rallying past the mid-$40 a barrel range. While U.S. government data this week showed shrinking stockpiles, the demand picture remains murky as countries struggle to contain surging coronavirus infections. Energy Aspects Ltd. lowered its global jet fuel demand forecasts for August and September, citingslower than anticipated growth in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

“With all the bullish headlines that we’ve seen over the last weeks regarding inventories,” the lack of a stronger rally in prices is a troubling sign, said Tariq Zahir, managing member of the global macro program at Tyche Capital Advisors LLC. “Crude fails to break to the upside and you’re in a contango market, so risk is to the downside.”

Brent’s prompt spread — the difference between the prices of the front-month contract and that of the following month — weakened to its widest contango structure since May, signaling oversupply.

Prices
  • West Texas Intermediate for October settlement fell 29 cents to settle at $42.82 a barrel.
    • The September contract, which expires Thursday, declined 35 cents to end the session at $42.58 a barrel.
  • Brent for October delivery lost 47 cents to settle at $44.90 a barrel.

In physical markets, the average premiums for U.S. Gulf Coast sour crudes Mars, Poseidon and Southern Green Canyon traded at the lowest levels in nearly a month in response to weak refinery demand. Nationwide refinery runs were at 80.9% last week, the weakest seasonally in decades.

Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baton Rouge refinery in Louisiana is idling one of twofluid catalytic cracking units due to low demand, according to a person familiar with operations. The plant already idled one of three cokers earlier this month and poor margins may mean more U.S.Gulf refiners reduce coker runs, taking less heavy crude in August and September, according to traders.

Other oil-market news:
  • China Aviation Oil (Singapore) Corporation Ltd. has denied fraud allegations by the Dubai unit of Banque De Commerce Et De Placements SA related to an oil deal earlier this year, it said in an exchange filing Thursday.
  • European jet fuel traders grappling with excess supply may have found a demand center, as depleting stocks on the U.S. East Coast prompt a surge in flows to the nation from across the Atlantic.
  • For the first time in more than 60 years,two storms are headed for the Gulf of Mexico, where they will almost certainly threaten oil and gas infrastructure.

— With assistance by James Thornhill, Alex Longley, Sharon Cho, Sheela Tobben, and Lucia Kassai

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