Oil hits 11-week low as China slowdown fears weigh

A truck used to carry sand for fracking is washed in a truck stop in Odessa, Texas.
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Oil prices fell 2% on Thursday on concern that the spread of a virus from China could lower fuel demand if it stunts economic growth, but losses were limited by a drawdown in U.S. crude inventories.

Brent crude futures lost $1.20, or 1.9%, to trade at $62.00 per barrel, after having touched $61.25 a barrel, the lowest since early December.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures fell $1.15, or 2%, to settle at $55.59 a barrel. The contract earlier fell to $54.77 a barrel, the lowest since Nov. 1.

Two Chinese cities were put in lockdown on Thursday as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a global pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak has killed 17 people and infected nearly 600.

The potential for a pandemic has stirred memories of the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-03, which also started in China and caused a slump in travel.

"Such health issues represent significant impediments to normal travel and as a result, have forced the oil market to discount some significant weakening in jet and diesel fuel demand that is extremely difficult to measure until the spread of the health virus is contained," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of trading advisory firm Ritterbusch and Associates.

With coronavirus cases detected as far as away as the United States, global stock markets also felt the effects of fears that the virus could spread further as millions of Chinese prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year this weekend.

"We estimate a price shock of up to $5 (a barrel) if the crisis develops into a SARS-style epidemic," JPM Commodities Research said in a note.

The U.S. bank maintained its forecast for Brent to average $67 in the first quarter and $64.50 throughout 2020.

Amid recent heightened tension between the United States and Iran, the United States on Thursday imposed Iran-related sanctions on two individuals and six companies, including four firms tied to the National Iranian Oil Company.

Tempering losses, U.S. crude inventories fell 405,000 barrels last week, although gasoline stockpiles rose to their highest on record after 11 weeks of consecutive builds, the Energy Information Administration reported.

"The report was modestly supportive," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC in New York.

China, meanwhile, released data showing gasoline exports rose by nearly a third last year thanks to new refineries.

This week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said it expects a surplus of 1 million barrels per day in the first half of the year.