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Oil falls as US-China trade fears outweigh falling crude stockpiles

Key Points
  • Heightened tensions between the world's two biggest economies have clouded the outlook for global growth and oil demand.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that China "broke the deal" in trade talks with Washington and could face stiff tariffs.
  • U.S. crude oil stocks fell by 4 million barrels in the week to May 3, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.
Oil operations in the Permian Basin near Midland, Texas
Nick Oxford | Reuters

Oil prices came under pressure on Thursday as investors worried about slower crude demand if the United States and China fail to reach a trade deal, resulting in higher U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports that could hit economic growth.

The trade dispute between the world's two biggest economies and a sharp drop in global equity markets outweighed geopolitical tensions and supply cuts that have lowered global supplies from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures settled 42 cents lower at $61.70 per barrel, set for a third week of losses.

Brent crude oil futures rose 2 cents to $70.39 a barrel on Thursday and were heading for their second consecutive weekly loss.

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U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that China "broke the deal" in trade talks with Washington and would face stiff tariffs if no agreement is reached.

Higher tariffs are set to take effect on Friday, during Chinese Vice Premier Liu He's two-day visit to Washington which starts Thursday.

The row has already dragged on economic growth in Asia and a breakdown in Sino-American negotiations could call global crude demand forecasts into question, said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital Management LLC.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects global oil demand to rise by 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) this year.

"It's why OPEC is being a bit stingy with barrels," Kilduff said, referring to output cuts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies including Russia. "They don't want to step into that situation if the trade talks go off the rails."

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OPEC's top producer Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to add more barrels to global supply because it fears a price crash, even as the organization is unsure of global supplies for the second half of the year, OPEC sources said.

U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, and threats to oil supplies in Nigeria in Libya have supported oil prices, mitigating the impact of the trade dispute, analysts said. Brent and WTI have risen more than 30 percent so far this year.

"The supply uncertainty is what's holding the (U.S. oil) market above $60 a barrel," said Phillip Streible, senior market strategist at RJO Futures in Chicago. "The demand uncertainty is what has it in the red today. But we're holding pretty good."

Earlier this week, data showing a surprise drop in U.S. crude inventories also buoyed prices.