Oil continues its slide

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Oil prices fell below $75 Tuesday as concerns about global economic growth overshadowed a rebound in U.S. stock markets.

What prices are doing: Light, sweet crude for March delivery fell 55 cents to settle at $74.71 a barrel.

What's moving the market: Oil prices fell in early trading, tracking losses in Asian stock markets, following reports that some Chinese banks have stopped making new loans for the rest of the month.

The move comes amid increasing signs that Chinese policymakers are worried about the country's rapid economic growth and possible price bubbles in certain markets.

Concerns about the global economy were also fueled by a possible downgrade of Japan's credit rating after Standard & Poor's said it was worried about large deficits and a sluggish growth outlook for what has been the world's No. 2 economy.

In Europe, the U.K. government said the nation's economy grew at a slower-than-expected pace in the fourth quarter, although the data marked an official end to the recession in that country.

U.K. gross domestic product rose 0.1% in the fourth quarter, compared with the third quarter. Compared with a year earlier, GDP fell 3.2%. Economists had expected a quarterly rise of 0.4%, and a full-year decline of 2.9%.

The mixed economic news helped support the dollar as investors flocked to the U.S. currency for safety. A stronger greenback typically hurts commodities that are priced in dollars, such as crude oil.

Meanwhile, U.S. stocks recovered from earlier losses as investors responded a better-than-expected consumer confidence report at the start of the two-day Federal Reserve meeting.

The Consumer Confidence index, from the Conference Board, rose to 55.9 in January from 53.6 in the previous month, versus forecasts for a reading of 53.5.

The Fed was beginning its two-day policy meeting Tuesday, with a statement due Wednesday afternoon. The central bankers are widely expected to hold interest rates steady at historic lows near zero and to signal that they will continue to do so for the time being.

But the statement could impact financial markets if it contains any hints about when the Fed will raise interest rates or withdraw some of the trillions of dollars of stimulus it had put into the economy over the last few years.

Looking ahead, investors are bracing for weekly supply data from the American Petroleum Institution due in the afternoon and the U.S. Energy Information Administration's inventory report Wednesday.

Analysts expect U.S. supplies of crude oil rose last week, due in part to weak demand for heating fuel caused by above normal temperatures in the Northeast.

What analysts are saying: "It looks likely that crude oil prices could continue to trade within the $70-$80 range in the short term as concerns over the potential tightening Chinese monetary policy and the uncertain outlook for energy demand continue to be the dominating factors," said Myrto Sokou, an analyst at Sucden Financial Research. To top of page

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