Oil falls after Fed statement

Inventory report shows increase in gasoline and crude stockpiles on lower consumer demand.

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By Julianne Pepitone, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Oil prices fell Wednesday after the end of a two-day meeting in which policy makers discussed how to stimulate the economy.

The Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee released a statement at 2:15 p.m. ET, saying it would buy $300 billion of long-term Treasury debt in an effort to inject liquidity into the financial system.

Crude prices were down $1 to $48.16 a barrel after the statement's release.

It wasn't much of a change from earlier in the session. With the benchmark rate remaining at its record-low range of 0-0.25%, traders are instead looking to the statement for hints on the economic outlook and announcements of additional efforts to boost the financial system.

"More than any other meeting in recent history, this one's baked into the cake already," said Chris Lafakis, economist at Moody's Economy.com. "The market always looks at the Fed, but this time they're not expecting too much."

At the end of the day, prices settled at $48.14 a barrel; down $1.02 from Tuesday.

Inventory report: Earlier in the day, a government report said supplies of gasoline soared unexpectedly. Oil traded down $1.07 just prior to the report's release.

In its weekly inventory report, the Energy Information Administration said stockpiles of gasoline increased by 3.2 million barrels in the week ended March 13.

Analysts were expecting a decrease of 2.1 million barrels, according to a consensus estimate compiled by Platts, an energy information provider.

"These continued increases show the supply-demand balance is tight, which points toward risk for further deterioration in the market," Lafakis said.

Crude supplies increased by 2 million barrels, matching estimates. The EIA report also said distillates, which are used to make heating oil and diesel fuel, rose by 100,000 barrels. Analysts expected supplies to rise 400,000 barrels.

The sluggish global economy has hammered consumer demand for oil, which in turn has caused a glut in supply.

Amid layoffs, pay cuts and general uncertainty about the future of the economy, consumers have scaled back their use of energy. Oil prices have plummeted from a record high of $147.27 a barrel last summer.

OPEC: In response to growing stockpiles, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries - whose members produce about 40% of the world's crude - has been pressured to put a floor under prices.

At an OPEC meeting March 15, the group agreed to reduce supply by a further 800,000 barrels a day to complete promised supply cuts.

Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world, doesn't need to cut production more in order to account for other OPEC nations, Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said in an interview in Vienna.

Member countries Iran and Nigeria are overproducing by 50%, Lafakis said.

"Saudi Arabia has cut more than it was asked to," he said, "They're picking up the slack, and they won't want to institute more cuts without more compliance from these cheating nations."

Lafakis said he didn't expect OPEC to institute more production cuts between now and its next meeting in May. Only "material events" - not a mere continuation of the sluggish economy - could spark cuts, he said.

Gasoline: The national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline increased to $1.92, up 1 cent from the previous day, according to motorist group AAA.

Outlook: Oil prices will likely rise to $56 a barrel by year's end, Lafakis said

"The economy could get worse, but if it does, OPEC will come in with more cuts," he said. "Member countries have shown they can stop inventory from rising if they are focused on it."

Crude prices will probably bottom around $40 a barrel, with a possible decline to $35 - but nothing like the lows of December and January, Lafakis said.

In the long-term, Lafakis said he expects oil prices to rise to $85 in 2011 and decline back to $70 in 2014.

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