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Bernanke May Limit Oil's Decline With QE 'Defense'

Ben Bernanke
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Ben Bernanke

Benchmark oil prices are set to weaken further this week though losses may be limited if U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defends the central bank's stimulus efforts this week at his semi-annual testimony to Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Eight out of 11 respondents - or more than 70 percent - expect prices to fall this week while three say prices will trade around current levels. There were no respondents with a bullish view on oil for the week.

CNBC's oil sentiment survey last week correctly predicted that the Fed's January minutes, which suggested some policymakers favored winding down stimulus earlier than expected, would be the catalyst for a sharp pullback in oil prices. The U.S. crude, for example, hit its lowest level since January 7 on Friday.

"Global liquidity, rather than demand-supply fundamentals" has been driving commodity prices, Gaurav Sodhi, resources analyst at Intelligent Investor in Sydney told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday, so "it's really important that Bernanke restates what he has already said to financial market - that is he will continue QE [quantitative easing] until the employment target is met."

Sodhi added: "The reliability of the Fed is really on the line...because market faith in the Fed is somewhat shaken. We will be watching for him to recommit to that original employment target."

The U.S. dollar reaction to Bernanke's comments could make or break commodities market direction this week. A stronger dollar makes dollar-denominated commodities like oil costlier for buyers paying in currencies like the euro and the yen.

"The question is now where Bernanke, our mild mannered inflation dove stands," Kathy Lien, co-founder BK Asset Management, wrote on Friday. "If he agrees that changes to the monthly asset purchase could be made, the dollar could extend its gains quickly. However, if he vigorously defends the central bank's ultra-easy monetary policy and downplays the need to slow or stop their asset purchases, it could kill the dollar's rally."

(Read More: Bernanke: 'We're Not Out of the Woods')

The U.S. crude oil for April delivery was little changed at $93.06 a barrel at 1.15 pm Singapore/Hong Kong time. The contract hit a low of $92.44 on Friday, the weakest since January 7 to finish the past week with its steepest loss since early December. Brent crude was off 7 cents at $114.03, also ending last week with its biggest loss since early December.

'Spike Down'

A number of respondents expect U.S. crude to test $91 a barrel this week, possibly even lower.

Tom Weber, senior commodity adviser at Portfolio Managers, Inc. Commodity Futures & Options said he expected "continued movement lower towards $91" while Mark Waggoner of Excel Futures forecast a "spike down" to $89.60.

John Licata, chief energy strategist of Blue Phoenix had a 'bearish' call on crude oil for the short term and said oil could fall as low as $89 "if $91 fails to hold." Still, he's more positive on the market further out and is looking for a run in towards triple digits this summer. Tom James of Navitas Resources recommended buying any dip on Brent crude "as long as we don't break the $110 area."

Additional downside risks for oil markets this week include the outcome of Italy's election and the fiscal challenges in the U.S. Congress returns on Monday after a week-long recess and unless lawmakers reach a deal with the White House to postpone $85 billion "sequester" spending cuts, they will take effect on March 1, Reuters reported on Sunday.

Dhiren Sarin, Barclays' chief technical strategist for Asia-Pacific, said sentiment on Wall Street may be softer this week, weighing on oil markets. "U.S. equities are looking weak," Sarin said. "A reversal pattern on weekly charts suggests that sentiment is likely to stay negative and this also has bearish implications for oil and other commodities over the next week or two."

Markets will also be watching the data from China. HSBC's preliminary China manufacturing index for February slipped from a two-year high to 50.4. Meanwhile, China said on Sunday it will raise the retail price ceiling for gasoline and diesel from Monday in response to increases in global oil prices. Gasoline price will rise by 300 yuan ($48) per ton and diesel by 290 yuan per ton, the National Development and Reform Commission planning agency said in a statement on its website.

Donald Hanna of Fortress Investments told CNBC Asia's "Cash Flow" he blamed seasonal distortions from the Lunar New year holidays for the drop in manufacturing activity. China's economy is improving, Hanna said, otherwise the government would have refrained from raising retail fuel prices and rail freight charges. China's official manufacturing index will be released later this week.