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Oil Prices to Extend Gains, Threatening Global Recovery

Oil prices are poised to gain for the third straight week, undermining global equity market sentiment and threatening the fragile economic recovery, CNBC's weekly survey of market sentiment showed.

A CNBC poll of analysts and traders showed 12 out of 16 respondents, or 75 percent, expect oil prices to rise this week. Three believe prices will fall and one expects no change. Though the bulls comprise the overwhelming majority, many are lightening long positions, or bets that prices will rise, as they believe the recent rally is showing signs of fatigue.

"You have to trade from the buy side but I would be reducing my long positions ahead of the weekend," said Tom James, Chairman & Co-Founder, Navitas Resources, in an email on Thursday. "The fundamentals in the physical market don't support the current short term price." James added that he was looking to add long positions on any pullback in Brent crude to $115. "Target for the year is now $150 on longer term basis for Brent."

Brent crude hit a record high in Euro terms last Thursday at 93.60 euros per barrel as supply concerns escalated. U.S. crude futures settled at just under $110 a barrel on Friday, recording their biggest weekly gain in two months. For the week, U.S. crude rose 6.3 percent, the most since the week to Dec. 23.

Dhiren Sarin, Chief Technical Strategist, Asia-Pac at Barclays Capital, who correctly predicted Brent's move above $120, is switching to a more neutral bias for U.S. crude. "On balance, having been bullish for two weeks... we are sensitive to a correction or, in the least, a pause above $103.40/75" for WTI, Sarin said.

However, John Licata, CEO and Chief Commodity Strategist at Blue Phoenix, expects U.S. crude futures to gain momentum over Brent.

"WTI is about to see a rally at the expense of Brent as facts like France getting just 3 percent of oil from Iran and Britain not taking Iranian oil deliveries in 6 months cause a contract allocation shift into WTI," Licata said.

This shift will further be fueled by a lack of refining capacity in the Northeast U.S. and concerns surrounding militant attacks on oil installations in Nigeria by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Licata said. According to him, outside Iran, Nigeria is a "very big factor" for global oil markets because the U.S. is a big buyer of Nigerian crude.

Gasoline Surge?

Numerous respondents this week are warning higher retail gasoline prices could threaten the fragile economic recovery in the U.S.

David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer, of Cumberland Advisors said an additional penny a gallon on gasoline translates roughly to a $1.4 billion decrease in U.S. annual spending power.

"A big uncertainty premium is building" in the price of crude oil because of the geo-political uncertainty, Kotok wrote in a weekly commentary. "We remain overweight energy."

The average U.S. price of gasoline jumped 18 cents a gallon in the past two weeks to $3.69 on Feb. 24, according to the nationwide Lundberg Survey, Reuters reported.

But supplies of fuel remained plentiful in most of the country, the survey found.

At $4.24 a gallon, San Diego had the highest average price for regular unleaded gasoline on Feb. 24, while the lowest price was $3.07 a gallon in Denver.

Some believe gasoline prices may average $4.50 a gallon or as high as $5.00, damaging demand ahead of the peak summer driving season.

Blue Phoenix's Licata said record gasoline prices in February are "troubling and could be the precursor for $4.50 plus gasoline this summer." That, he explained, could create another 'Prius Effect' and "delay economic growth, which unlike in 2008 supports more hybrid car/PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) demand. However with no real widespread substitute of oil on a mainstream level, I believe near-term the real long idea is to be bullish for WTI versus Brent."

Shelley Goldberg, Director, Global Resources & Commodities Strategy at Roubini Global Economics said "demand destruction is already kicking in as the U.S. is psychologically reluctant to fill up the tank with gasoline nearing $4 a gallon at the pump while the U.K., from a currency standpoint, faces ever rising petrol prices."

Meanwhile, policymakers are issuing warnings about the rise in global oil prices. In its final communique after the two-day meeting of finance ministers and central bankers, the G20 noted risks to growth from rising oil prices, which jumped to a nearly 10-month high above $125 a barrel on Friday. The G20 welcomed pledges by oil producers to ensure adequate supply.

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