Crude Falls Below $40 for First Time in 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Oil prices dipped below $40 per barrel Friday for the first time this year as the government reported the nation's worst annual job losses since World War II.

People are traveling less, manufacturers are slashing production and there are job cuts across almost every sector of the economy, leading to a severe drop-off in energy use.

What was a bright spot, rapidly falling gasoline prices, has reversed course.

The average national retail price for a gasoline rose again overnight, the 10th day in a row it has done so, even as crude prices fall. Gasoline bottomed out at $1.61 a gallon on Dec. 30 before rebounding with crude, but have yet to catch up with volatile oil prices.

The Labor Department said employers slashed 524,000 jobs in December and 2.6 million jobs for all of 2008. It was the worst annual loss since 2.8 million jobs were loss in 1945, although the number of jobs has more than tripled since then. The nation's unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent, the highest since 1993.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell 87 cents to settle at $40.83 on the New York Mercantile Exchange after dipping as low
as $39.38.

Crude has closed lower every day with dire economic news overshadowing armed conflict in the oil-rich Middle East, a dispute that has shut off or disrupted natural gas supplies to more than a dozen European nations, and diminished crude exports from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about 40 percent of global supply.

The unemployment report bolsters how the worst recession in decades has taken hold of the U.S. economy. At the same time, crude
oil continues to flood the market with traders storing oil at sea in hopes that it can be sold later should prices rise.

Oil analyst Stephen Schork notes in his daily report how weak the economy has become, especially in the auto and steel industries.

The Detroit Three automakers have announced extended holiday shutdowns. Chrysler has said it is closing all 30 of its North American manufacturing plants for four weeks because of slumping sales; Ford will shut 10 North American assembly plants for an extra week in January, and General Motors will temporarily close 20 factories - many for the entire month of January - to cut vehicle production.

Meanwhile, U.S. Steel is idling plants in Granite City, Ill., Keewatin, Minn., and its Great Lakes Works near Detroit.

"These two anecdotes from the auto and steel industries tell us all we need to know about how dicey the current economic situation is," he wrote.

On Friday, KB Home, one of the nation's largest homebuilders, reported that lower housing revenue drove sales down 56 percent to $919 million in the fourth quarter from $2.07 billion in the 2007 fourth quarter. Homes delivered totaled 3,192 in the quarter, less than half the 8,132 delivered a year earlier as foreclosures mounted and mortgage lending dried up.

On Thursday, president-elect Barack Obama said the recession could "linger for years" unless Congress pumps unprecedented sums
from Washington into the economy.

"This all supports the demand deterioration argument we've been talking about for months," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associated.

"In hindsight this pop from $35 to $50 was a normal market correction within a bear market," said Ritterbusch, who looks for prices to head back down toward last month's lows in the next few days.

Oil prices at one point Tuesday reached $50.47, the highest price since Dec. 1, before the continuing raft of lousy economic news took hold.

First, it the National Association of Realtors reporting that pending home sales fell to the lowest level on record in November. Then the government reported that orders to factories fell for a record fourth straight month in November.

On Wednesday, prices fell 12 percent after the Energy Information Administration said that crude oil inventories rose 6.7 million barrels, well above the 1.5 million-barrel build expected by analysts, followed by Friday's unemployment news.

Rising U.S. inventories show just how badly demand for energy has eroded.

But Peter Beutel of Cameron Hanover said in his Friday report that despite the bearish news, he is looking for prices to stabilize, helped by the government's stimulus packages, interest rate cuts in the other countries, low mortgage rates in the U.S., historically low refining rates in the U.S. and the start of refinery maintenance, and OPEC production cuts.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank lowered its forecast for oil prices to $45 from $55 for the first quarter and reduced its annual average oil price for 2009 to $45 from $47.50. Analyst Adam Sieminski said he expects a sharp recovery in prices perhaps in the second half of 2010.

"We expect global oil demand growth to be significantly worse in 2009 than consensus forecasts. In an environment of rising OPEC spare capacity and excess global refining capability, we believe oil prices will not hit rock bottom until the end of this year as OPEC production cuts work their way through the system and global growth starts to recover," Deutsche Bank said in a note to investors.

Heating oil prices also continued to move lower even with the forecast of a major winter storm from the Midwest into New England that could dump up to 8 inches of snow by Saturday night.

Despite the decline in crude, prices at the pump continued to inch up, climbing 2 cents overnight to $1.782 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. Prices now a dime higher than a month ago, but still $1.318 below prices a year ago.

Ritterbusch said gasoline prices have followed crude higher, but he looks for those prices to come down now that oil is moving lower.

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures rose 2.4 cents to fetch $1.1126 a gallon. Heating oil fell 2.9 cents, selling at $1.49 a gallon while natural gas for February delivery lost 5.3 cents to $5.53 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, February Brent crude fell 12 cents to $44.55 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Associated Press writers Jeannine Aversa in Washington, George
Jahn in Vienna, Austria, and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed
to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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