Oil Futures Trade Below $90

Since hitting $100 a barrel earlier this year, crude prices have been falling.
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Bearish inventory figures from the Energy Department and persisting fears of a global economic slowdown had oil futures trading lower again Wednesday.

West Texas intermediate crude was recently down $1.78 at $90.12 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and earlier it traded below $90 for much of the day. Reformulated gasoline was 5 cents lower at $2.25 a gallon. Heating oil also lost 5 cents to $2.50 a gallon.

Natural gas slipped a nickel to $8.13 per million British thermal units.

The Energy Department's inventory report for the week ended Jan. 11 showed that crude stores rose by 4.3 million barrels, more than three times what analysts surveyed by

Bloomberg

were expecting.

Gasoline inventories climbed by 2.2 million barrels, while distillates increased by 1.2 million barrels. Both were just below forecasts.

According to Jim Williams, economist at WTRG Economics, the latest data is conflicting with crude oil storage figures in determining which direction the price of oil should be heading.

"The recent fall in crude prices clearly shows that crude is trading on fears of a recession, and not the reality of supply and demand numbers," Williams said.

Although this week's inventory figures showed a larger-than-expected rise in stores, total crude in storage in the U.S. is at the lower end of its five-year average range. For now, 287 million barrels of crude are in storage, vs. 316 million barrels at the same time last year.

"There are currently 27 million barrels of oil less in storage than there were in early November. That is a 9% drop, which is a significant difference," Williams said.

Low crude inventory figures would normally provide an upward boost to crude prices. However, crude has fallen consistently in recent sessions since touching $100 a barrel at the start of the year.

On top of recessionary fears, global interest in crude oil tends to decline as winter turns into spring and demand for heating oil falls. The seasonal trend provides further argument that crude will likely slip in price in the weeks ahead, according to Williams.

Alan Mandel, an analyst at Alan M. Trading, offers a different reason why oil prices have fallen from their recent highs.

"Oil prices are correcting from their record-breaking bull run. Every bull market is accompanied by steep corrections which look scary when they occur. Thus, a fall into the mid-$80 range is inevitable," Mandel said.

But as the U.S. continues to lower interest rates and as the dollar keeps losing value, oil will return to its upward trajectory after its current correction is over, Mandel says. "Crude prices will most likely be heading upwards again six months from now," he said.

Meanwhile, energy stocks continued to spiral downward.

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

fell 4.2% to $77.25 a share.

Royal Dutch Shell

(RDS.A)

lost 2.8% to $77.97, and

Exxon Mobil

(XOM) - Get Report

slid 2.1% to $87.16.