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U.S. crude futures may draw some support this week from signs of improving gasoline demand and a pick-up in U.S. refinery activity, CNBC's latest survey of market professionals showed -- although a record supply overhang may restrain any move higher.
Gasoline prices have now increased for 12 weeks in a row, gaining nearly 43 cents, or about 13 percent, since the beginning of February, according to the Lundberg survey released on May 4. Refineries operated at 92.9 percent of capacity for the week ended April 25 and latest data this week may show a 0.5 percentage point increase during the week ended May 2, according to energy information provider Platts.
"Last week, we saw gasoline production hit a record 10 million barrels a day in the U.S. and as we struck another month of near-record auto sales, demand will not be denied despite fuel efficiency," said Carl Larry, president of Houston-based consultancy Oil Outlooks and Opinions.
"Refineries should edge up a notch and we will probably see an easing of crude oil imports to the U.S.," said Larry, who holds a bullish view on WTI futures for this week. "That's going to help erase some of the record crude inventories and give life to WTI back above $100."
Nevertheless, the seasonal uptick in refinery activity and robust gasoline demand may not be enough to dent the shale-driven growth in U.S. domestic output which is keeping stockpiles at all-time highs. Platts forecasts a further build-up in U.S. supplies this week, taking inventories to a new record.
"The oil market and prices are experiencing a definite undertow from the supply situation in the U.S. and the Gulf Coast refining sector, in particular," said John Kilduff, founding partner of Again Capital. On balance, oil will decline this week "despite the Ukraine strife and renewed fighting in Libya," he said.
Just over half of the respondents polled by CNBC (52 percent or 18 out of 35) said prices will rise this week though more than a third (37 percent, or 13 out of 35) are betting on a decline and 11 percent (four out of 35) say prices will be little changed.
IG Markets' data shows investor opinion favoring gains in U.S. futures and Brent crude. Sixty-three percent of IG clients with open positions in WTI crude expect prices to gain while an equal number see Brent crude rising.
Brent crude prices have been on the defensive recently, dipping below $108 a barrel last week on downbeat economic data from China and the U.S. supply overhang. "I cannot support higher crude prices right now," said Tom James, chairman & co-founder at Navitas Resources. "Without Ukraine, the real supply situation means we should be in the $106 area comfortably."
Still, several respondents said Brent's drop last week below $108 had gone too far and the benchmark would recoup last week's losses due to continued supply tail-risks. "I would buy around $105.78 if we can get that low as Brent for me is getting oversold," said David Nevin, energy futures broker at Tower Broking. "We have on-going problems in Ukraine and Libya that will support."
Thina Margrethe Saltvedt, senior macro oil analyst at Nordea Markets in Oslo, said that although targeted sanctions by the EU or U.S. are unlikely to affect physical oil balances, "the risk that the conflict may escalate further supports the oil risk premium and prices."
Under a worst-case scenario, the Ukraine crisis "can intensify and trigger an oil prices spike that tips the E.U. back into recession," she warned.
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