SINGAPORE: Oil prices dipped Wednesday in Asia as concern that a swine flu outbreak could undermine crude demand overrode optimism about an eventual recovery from a global slump. Benchmark crude for June delivery was down 39 cents to $49.53 a barrel by midday in Singapore, in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract Tuesday fell 22 cents to settle at $49.92. The swine flu virus is suspected in 159 deaths and 2,498 illnesses across Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak. The disease spread to more countries Tuesday, with confirmed cases in New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain. Investors are watching for whether fear of the virus will keep travelers at home and hit an already weak global economy. "It's not that big a deal so far, but it put a brake on the upward trend in oil prices," said Gerard Rigby, an energy analyst with First Fuel Consulting in Sydney. "If it keeps getting worse, it could hit airline travel." Prices rose above $51 on Friday from $45 earlier last week on investor optimism that the worst of the global economic downturn may be over. The New York-based Conference Board said Tuesday its Consumer Confidence Index rose more than 12 points to 39.2, up from a revised 26.9 in March. The reading marks the highest level since November's 44.7 and well surpassed economists' expectations for 29.5. "There's a sentiment that things can't get much worse, that demand won't keep falling," Rigby said. Prices, which bounced off five-year lows near $35 a barrel in February, have snaked around the $50 a barrel level this month. Investor concern that an eventual recovery could be weaker than expected have kept prices from rising further. Traders will be eyeing the weekly petroleum inventory data from the Energy Information Agency on Wednesday. Analysts expect a build of 1.8 million barrels in crude stocks, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos. Crude stocks already are near 19-year highs. "The market is looking for evidence of demand improving, and so far we haven't seen it yet," Rigby said. In other Nymex trading, gasoline for May delivery was steady at $1.40 a gallon and heating oil slid 0.69 cent to $1.31 a gallon. Natural gas for May delivery was steady at $3.32 per 1,000 cubic feet. In London, Brent prices fell 39 cents to $49.60 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange. - AP
Flu fears push oil prices down again
COLUMBUS, Ohio: Oil prices fell for a second straight day Tuesday on fears that the outbreak of swine flu would delay an economic recovery and further dampen energy demand.
Benchmark crude for June delivery slipped 22 cents to settle at $49.92 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The contract Monday fell $1.41 to settle at $50.14.
Swine flu has killed more than 150 people in Mexico and number of countries reporting cases has spread to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
At least 60 cases have been identified in the U.S., but no deaths.
Fears of pandemics have slowed the global economy in the past and officials with the World Health Organization, while raising alert levels Monday, warned against overreacting.
On Tuesday, countries, including Canada, Israel and France, warned against any nonessential travel to Mexico.
"Border controls do not work. Travel restrictions do not work," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters on Tuesday in Geneva, recalling the 2003 SARS epidemic that killed 774 people, mostly in Asia, and slowed the global economy.
"There was much more economic disruption caused by these measures than there was public health benefit."
A global economic downturn has already led to a severe tumble in crude prices.
A barrel of oil cost about $100 less than a year ago.
The fear is that the outbreak could discourage people from traveling, lead to closed factories and further hurt the economy and oil consumption, said Addison Armstrong of Tradition Energy.
Prices bounced off lows of $48.55 Tuesday on news that consumer confidence is moving higher. But gains this year have been weighed down by the amount of unused oil in storage, which have reached 19-year highs.
That trend is expected to continue when the government reports crude in storage on Wednesday.
Analysts expect storage levels to grow by 1.8 million barrels, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.
They also are expecting a build of 900,000 barrels of gasoline.
Still, energy prices have been relatively stable given all of the data pointing to a horrible economy in which consumers and industries are spending a lot less on energy.
"There are weeks of evidence that oil consumption is down and will remain down and it hasn't mattered," said oil analyst and trader Stephen Schork.
Compared with 2008 drivers are still getting a big break at the pump.
Gasoline prices, which were soaring a year ago toward $4 a gallon, have settled into a range as well at a U.S. national average of about $2.05 a gallon over the past month.
And on Tuesday there was a sliver of optimism in a couple of mixed economic reports.
The New York-based Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index rose more than 12 points to 39.2, up from a revised 26.9 in March.
The reading marks the highest level since November's 44.7 and well surpassed economists' expectations for 29.5.
The huge jump follows a small increase in March, following a freefall in February. Still, the index remains well below year-ago levels of 62.8.
"It's still a poor outlook," Armstrong said. While home prices dropped sharply in February, it was the first time in more than two years that the decline did not set another record, suggesting the housing crisis may be bottoming.
The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 major cities dropped by 18.6 percent from February 2008, slightly better than the 19 percent in January.
The 10-city index slid 18.8 percent, compared with 19.4 percent the month before. BP PLC, the second-largest European oil company, said Tuesday that it returned to profit in the first quarter, beating analysts' forecasts by earning $2.56 billion.
In other Nymex trading, gasoline for May delivery fell less than a penny to settle at $1.3977 a gallon and heating oil also lost less than a penny to settle at $1.3167 a gallon.
Natural gas for May delivery rose 6.8 cents to settle at $3.321 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, Brent prices fell 33 cents to settle at $49.99 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange. - AP
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