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Oil tries for $100, then retreats

Crude nearly makes the triple-digit mark on declining U.S. inventories, a falling dollar and refinery outages, but falters by end of session.

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By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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Crude makes another run at $100 as inventories fall.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Oil prices nearly touched a $100 a barrel Wednesday on declining U.S. supplies, a falling dollar and refinery outages, but later retreated after failing to breach the elusive triple-digit mark.

U.S. crude for January delivery settled at $97.29 a barrel, down $0.74 from Tuesday's closing price of $98.03 a barrel.

The intra-day floor high was $98.70. The intra-day Globex (electronic trading) high was $99.29.

In its weekly report, the Energy Information Administration said crude stocks fell by 1.1 million barrels last week. Analysts were looking for a gain of 800,000 barrels, according to a Dow Jones poll.

Distillates, used to make heating oil and diesel fuel, slid by 2.4 million barrels while gasoline supplies rose by 200,000 barrels. Analysts were looking for a 400,000 barrel decline in distillate supplies and a 700,000 barrel increase in gasoline stocks.

Crude shot up over $1 immediately following the report, but failed to top the overnight high.

"I think a lot of people bought expecting a big decline," said Andy Lebow, Andrew, a broker and senior vice president at MF Global in New York. "When that didn't come, they sold and went home for the holiday."

Lebow also said the report showed nearly flat overall demand, and said economic worries may be keeping a lid on prices.

Resistance to breaking the $100 a barrel mark has proven strong. Crude made a run at it two weeks ago, but pulled back amid heavy selling of the expiring front-month contract, rising inventories and a declining stock market.

Oil prices got another shot at the triple digit mark from the ailing dollar Tuesday, with the euro hitting an all-time high of $1.4856 versus the greenback overnight.

The dollar was hit by forecasts for lower economic growth and tamer inflation from the Federal Reserve.

The Fed's revised outlook makes an interest rate cut more likely, which hurts the dollar as lower rates make dollar-denominated investments less attractive. Investors flock to oil and other commodities as a hedge against a falling dollar.

With the U.S. currency weak, oil-producing nations also have less incentive to ramp up output if the buying power they receive per barrel is declining, and foreign consumers have less incentive to reduce demand if oil is, relatively, getting cheaper for them.

With the Fed likely to cut rates again, analysts said $100 is still within sight.

"It looks like we may try to print $100," Peter Beutel, an oil analyst at Cameron Hanover, wrote in a note to clients. "It is not the speculators pressing quotes higher towards triple digits, it's the Fed Chairman himself."

Refinery outages also fueled the morning rally.

A Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Memphis, Tenn., that processes 180,000 barrels of crude a day has shut down for 10 days of unplanned maintenance, the Associated Press reported.

Also, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC plant that converts bitumen from Alberta's oil sands region into 155,000 barrels a day of synthetic crude oil was temporarily shut down due to a fire, the news agency said.

Oil prices have jumped nearly 25 percent in a little over a month, propelled by a falling dollar, forecasts for strong demand, and a flood of investment money.

Retail gasoline prices, at first shielded from rising crude prices due to slack demand, have been catching up.

The average price for a gallon of regular nationwide - at the start of the hectic Thanksgiving travel period - is now $3.09, up from $2.75 a month ago, according to the motorist organization AAA. Last year, motorists were paying about $2.23 a gallon.

Crude oil is now at or near all-time highs, even adjusted for inflation. The last time oil was this high was the early 1980s, when it rose to (an inflation-adjusted) $93 to $101 a barrel, depending on the inflation calculation used and the oil contract cited.

Crude oil prices have surged nearly five-fold since trading below $20 a barrel in 2002.

Analysts say surging global demand combined with limited new supply is the main underlying factor.

The surge in prices has also attracted lots of speculative investment money, further driving prices higher.

The impact speculative investment has on prices is under debate. Some analysts note that only a small percentage of contracts are held by speculators - investment banks, hedge funds and others that are not end users of oil.

They point to rising growth in India and China when asked why oil prices are so high, and also note these investors can cause the price to fall just as dramatically and quickly when the market turns down.

Others say there is plenty of supply and these investors are pouring money into oil because oil is easier to buy on margin than are stocks. Buying on margin is when only a small percent of the worth of the contract is required to trade it.

They say fundamentals - such as rising demand from India and China - have been known for some time, yet note that crude has fluctuated from below $50 to near $100 just this year, and say that is evidence of pure speculation.

Either way, world oil supplies are currently stretched. That tight supply and demand situation magnifies the effect that geopolitical tensions have on prices, as there is less spare supply available globally to cover disruptions from places such as Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela. To top of page

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