WTI Falls Below $50 a Barrel First Time in 5 1/2 Years

Benchmark U.S. oil prices dropped below $50 a barrel for the first time since April 2009 as surging supply signaled that the global glut that drove crude into a bear market will persist.

West Texas Intermediate slid 5 percent in New York while Brent fell below $55 in London for the first time since May 2009. Russia’s output rose to a post-Soviet high while Iraq, the second-largest producer in OPEC, plans to boost crude exports to a record this month. The price drop accelerated as the dollar climbed against the euro amid investor concern Greece might leave the currency union

“The market is continuing to price in weak fundamentals in the first half of this year,” Mike Wittner, head of oil research at Societe Generale SA in New York, said by phone. “There’s also been a return to risk aversion because of Greece, something we haven’t seen in a while.”

Brent slumped 48 percent last year, the most since the 2008 financial crisis, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries resisted calls to cut output amid a battle with U.S. shale producers for market share. The 12-member group pumped above its target for a seventh straight month in December, according to a Bloomberg survey.

WTI Futures

West Texas Intermediate for February delivery dropped $2.65 to $50.04 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It was the lowest settlement since April 28, 2009. Prices slipped as much as 5.5 percent to $49.77 during trading. The volume of all futures traded was 11 percent higher than the 100-day average at 2:54 p.m.

Brent for February settlement declined $3.31, or 5.9 percent, to end the session at $53.11 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. It was the lowest close since May 1, 2009. Volume for all futures traded was 40 percent above the 100-day average. The European benchmark closed at a $3.07 premium to WTI.

“Everyone is looking for the bottom,” Sarah Emerson, managing principal of ESAI Energy Inc., a consulting company in Wakefield, Massachusetts, said by phone. “We’ve already dropped below what would be justified by fundamentals. Brent should find support around the $58 to $60 area given supply and demand.”

Iraqi Exports

Iraq plans to expand crude exports to 3.3 million barrels a day this month, Asim Jihad, a spokesman at the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, said by phone yesterday. The country exported 2.94 million a day in December, the most since the 1980s, he said.

Russian oil production rose 0.3 percent in December to a post-Soviet record of 10.667 million barrels a day, according to preliminary data published Jan. 2 by CDU-TEK, part of the Energy Ministry.

“This bearish market is being fed by a combination of surging supply and shaky demand,” John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital LLC, a New York-based hedge fund that focuses on energy, said by phone. “We now have Russian production at a post-Soviet high and the Iraqis planning to add even more supply to the market. This just adds to negative market sentiment.”

Saudi Discount

Saudi Arabia narrowed discounts in its official February crude selling prices to buyers in Asia to $1.40 a barrel below the average of Middle East benchmark Oman and Dubai grades.

The world’s biggest oil exporter offered its Arab Light grade at the greatest discount in at least 14 years for January. That move was followed by Iraq, Kuwait and Iran, prompting speculation that Middle East producers were protecting market share.

The oil market is set for “more problems” this year as increasing supplies add to the global glut, according to Morgan Stanley. Output may rise in West Africa and the Americas in addition to more shipments from Russia and Iraq, offsetting concerns of reduced Libyan production, analysts including New York-based Adam Longson said in an e-mailed report today. Iran may boost exports by about 500,000 barrels a day if western sanctions against it are lifted, the analysts said.

Revised Projections

Brent will trade at $80 a barrel this year, down from an earlier estimate of $104, amid gains in global spare capacity and rising inventories, Sanford C. Bernstein said in an e-mailed report today.

U.S. crude output rose to 9.14 million barrels a day in the week ended Dec. 12, the most in Energy Information Administration weekly data that started in January 1983. Production will climb to an average 9.32 million this year, the EIA said Dec. 9 in its monthly Short-Term Energy Outlook.

“We’re still focused on U.S. production,” Kyle Cooper, director of commodities research at IAF Advisors in Houston, said by phone. “Production is going to rise during the next six months as projects that are already underway reach completion.”

Dollar Strength

The euro dropped as far as $1.1864, the lowest in almost nine years. A stronger U.S. currency usually reduces the appeal of commodities as a store of value.

“The euro is getting trounced on the Greek news today,” Stephen Schork, president of the Schork Group Inc. in Villanova, Pennsylvania, said by phone. “There’s a very strong correlation between dollar strength and oil prices. The dollar is very strong right now.”

The EIA is projected to report Jan. 7 that U.S. supplies of crude, gasoline and distillate fuel, a category that diesel and heating oil, rose last week, according to a Bloomberg survey.

Fuel Prices

Gasoline futures declined 5.2 cents, or 3.6 percent, to $1.3814 a gallon, the lowest settlement since April 1, 2009. Diesel decreased 4.65 cents, or 2.6 percent, to close at $1.7492, the least since Sept. 29.

Regular gasoline at U.S. pumps fell to the lowest level since May 2009. The average retail price slipped 1 cent to $2.199 a gallon yesterday, according to Heathrow, Florida-based AAA, the nation’s biggest motoring group. Pump prices were around $2.05 a gallon when oil was last below $50 a barrel.

“This bearish syndrome will continue until the drop in prices either stimulates economic growth or there is a supply response,” Kilduff said.

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