Oil pops 3%, rallying with stocks after report US may delay hitting Mexico with tariffs

Key Points
  • Oil prices rally after trading little changed throughout Thursday's session, one day after crude futures plunged to their lowest since January.
  • U.S. crude and fuel stockpiles surge while production hits a record 12.4 million barrels per day in the week to May 31.
  • Signs of slowing global economic activity have increased in recent months, fueled by U.S.-China trade tensions.
Morgan Brennan | CNBC

Oil futures turned sharply higher heading into Thursday's settlement, tracking a rally in equities on a report that the Trump administration may delay tariffs on Mexican imports.

Crude futures traded mostly flat throughout Thursday's session as sentiment remained weak amid fresh signs of a stalling global economy and ongoing concerns about growth in supply.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures settled 91 cents higher at $52.51 per barrel, posting a 1.8% gain on the day. WTI was last trading up $1.50, or 2.9%, at $53.18 after the settlement.

International benchmark Brent crude futures rose $1.04, or 1.7%, at $61.67 a barrel on Thursday. Brent also extended gains after its settlement and was last up $1.67, or 2.8%, at $62.30 per barrel.

On Wednesday, the two benchmarks hit their lowest levels since mid-January at $59.45 and $50.60, respectively, after U.S. crude production hit a new record high and stockpiles hit their highest since July 2017.

Signs of slowing global economic activity have increased in recent months, fueled by trade tensions between the United States and China, the world's top two energy consumers.

"Worries about demand destruction are really driving prices lower," said Gene McGillian, vice president of market research at Tradition Energy.

U.S. President Donald Trump added to the market's worries after threatening last week to slap tariffs on Mexican goods unless the nation clamps down on illegal border crossings into the U.S. Mexico is a major source of crude oil to U.S. refineries and the biggest purchaser of American gasoline exports.

Oil futures "got hit earlier in the week in anticipation of the Mexican tariffs being implemented and now it's kind of reversing that stance," said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.

"The ongoing friction between the U.S. and China, the U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and others on the trade front is really having a negative impact on the sentiment for economic growth around the world, which would lead to a reduction in the rate of growth of oil demand."

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Trump, in his latest public comments about the trade war, said he would decide on more China tariffs "probably right after the G20" meeting at the end of June, which followed his overnight threat to put tariffs on "at least" another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods.

The European Central Bank's decision to push back the timing of its first post-crisis interest rate hike also dimmed the global economic outlook and cooled expectations for crude demand.

Morgan Stanley lowered its forecast for growth in oil demand for 2019 from 1.2 million bpd to 1.0 million bpd, and cut its Brent price forecast for the second half of 2019 to $65-$70 per barrel, from $75-$80.

"Demand is weakening much more rapidly than we had expected," Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note on Wednesday.

"We now estimate 2019 to be a year in which supply and demand broadly balance," the investment bank said.

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Oil prices rallied strongly in the first five months of the year to a high of about $75 a barrel, supported by supply curbs by OPEC and some non-OPEC producers including Russia, an alliance known as OPEC+.

U.S. sanctions limiting oil exports from Iran and Venezuela also offered support.

Members of the OPEC+ group are set to discuss whether to extend their supply curbs further later this month.

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia had differences with OPEC over what constituted a fair price for oil but said Moscow would take a joint decision with OPEC colleagues on output at a policy meeting in the coming weeks.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.