Oil slightly lower on mixed U.S. economic data, crude stocks growth

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Oil prices settled slightly lower on Thursday after trading in a narrow range as the market weighed mixed U.S. economic signals and prospects for a Chinese demand recovery with a build in U.S. crude stockpiles.

Brent crude futures settled at $85.14 a barrel, losing 24 cents. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI) settled at $78.49 a barrel, shedding 10 cents.

While U.S. data suggested the U.S. jobs market remained robust, a gauge of manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region unexpectedly plunged.

Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Loretta Mester said the central bank could become more aggressive with rate rises if inflation surprises to the upside. The latest reading on inflation showed prices remaining stubbornly high. But Mester does not expect the U.S. to fall into recession.

The dollar briefly climbed to a six-week peak against a basket of currencies after the U.S. data, weighing on oil, as a strong dollar makes the greenback-denominated commodity more expensive for holders of other currencies.

"Brent failed again to move above the 100-day moving average this week," said UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo.

The Brent benchmark has been swinging within an $80-$90 a barrel range for the past six weeks, while WTI has ranged between $72 and $83 since December.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday reported U.S. crude oil stockpiles last week rose to their highest level since June 2021 after a larger-than-expected build.

"Oil prices are very choppy at the moment, with traders having a lot to take in," OANDA analyst Craig Erlam said in a note, pointing to Russia's 500,000 barrel-per-day cut to oil production in March, a strong Chinese economic recovery and an uncertain global economic outlook.

The prospect of a Chinese demand recovery has contributed to bullish sentiment.

China will account for almost half of global oil demand growth this year after relaxing its COVID-19 curbs, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Wednesday.

The Paris-based watchdog echoed similar views from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which this week raised its 2023 global oil demand growth forecast on Chinese demand growth.

On the supply side, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said the current OPEC+ deal to cut oil production targets by 2 million barrels per day (bpd) would be locked in until the end of the year, adding he remained cautious on Chinese demand.

A plan by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to release more oil from the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve would also "most likely limit any rallies that develop in coming weeks," said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho in New York.