Brent, Oil Float in Tight Ranges in Choppy Trading

Oil Refining’s Fortunes Rise
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Brent and U.S. crude fluctuated near unchanged, rising modestly as concerns about the euro zone and mixed economic data from the United States hemmed in oil prices on the last trading day of first-quarter 2013.

Brent crude futures are heading for a loss of more than 1 percent for the first quarter, extending a 1 percent slide in the fourth-quarter of last year. Brent averaged just under $112 a barrel in 2012, the highest ever average annual price.

Reflecting the difference in sentiment about the gloomy outlook for Europe and a U.S. economy showing signs of improving growth, U.S. crude futures were on pace to post a more than 5 percent jump in the quarter after dipping 0.4 percent in the final quarter of 2012.

"The positive correlation between oil and equities has been negated by the fact that the euro has declined significantly," Mark Thomas, analyst at Marex Spectron said.

Brent crude shook off early weakness to rise by 29 cents to $109.98 a barrel. U.S. oil, also known as WTI, rose 49 cents to $97.07, extending its four day winning streak.

The divergent price trends for Brent and its U.S. counterpart were evident in the diminished premium for Brent, with the spread between the two futures contracts shrinking to less than $13 a barrel on Thursday, its narrowest since early July.

Traders remained cautious as banks in Cyprus reopened under tight controls on Thursday. The banks were shut for two weeks as the country negotiated a bailout with international banks.

"It's the last day of the quarter ahead of a long (Easter) weekend," Olivier Jakob at Petromatrix consultancy in Switzerland said. "There is a lot of uncertainty over Europe and Cyprus but people will not readjust their books ahead of the break."

U.S. initial jobless claims rose more than expected last week, but have trended lower this year and other data released on Thursday showed the economy expanded more in the fourth quarter than the government had previously estimated.

A gauge of business activity in the U.S. Midwest was not supportive, with the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago business index falling in March, indicating slower growth.

Expiring Refined Products Contracts

U.S. April refined products contracts expire on Thursday and April RBOB gasoline futures fell 1 percent as a need to sell winter grade gasoline ahead of the seasonal specification change and generally tepid U.S. demand weighed on prices.

But gasoline futures will end the quarter up more than 9 percent, aided by a more than 5 percent hike in March. The futures slid 15 percent in the previous quarter.

U.S. heating oil, the benchmark distillate contract, was little changed on Thursday, still supported after this week's government inventory report showed U.S. stockpiles dropped 4.5 million barrels last week, with demand over the previous four weeks up 5.8 percent from the year-ago period.

Heating oil was on track to end the first quarter down 4 percent, with a nearly 2 percent slip in March.