NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Crude oil futures darted in and out of positive territory Monday even as U.S. equities remained solidly ahead on a spurt in mergers and acquisitions news and a rise in personal spending that came despite steady personal incomes. The April delivery crude contract traded as high as $80.62 a barrel during the day's session but finished well below the $80 level, shedding 96 cents, or 1.2%, to $78.70 a barrel. In the morning, Phil Flynn, energy analyst at PFGBest, said crude was "getting pulled in different directions with economic data" and took some cues from improving stock prices. But he also cited the contract's inability to push past $80 in recent days, adding that Monday's trading "shows a lack of commitment in the market, that the rally is not built on a solid foundation." The broader markets got a lift from news that
consumer spending rose in January. According to the Commerce Department, spending edged up by 0.5%, which beat expectations of a 0.4% rise. But a separate read on manufacturing activity underwhelmed Street analysts , though the slower pace continued to show expansion in the sector. A stronger U.S. dollar also exerted pressure on energy prices. The greenback was trading nearly 0.5% higher against a basket of foreign currencies, according to the dollar index. Oil-related stocks were seeing strength across the board, with the NYSE Arca Oil Index up by nearly 1%, and the Philadelphia Oil Service Sector Index improving 1.1%. Among the majors, shares of Hess ( HES) and ConocoPhillips ( COP) gained nearly 2% each, while Chevron ( CVX) finished the session up by 51 cents, or 0.7%, to $72.81. Though Rowan ( RDC) said its fourth-quarter profit and revenue slumped, the driller beat bottom-line estimates and cited signs of a "strong recovery" in domestic land rigs. Shares added $1.30, advancing 5%, to $27.32. Shares of USEC ( USU), a supplier of low enriched uranium for commercial nuclear power plants, were the New York Stock Exchange's best performer. Earlier the company met expectations with adjusted earnings of 31 cents a share. The stock surged 20.6%, gaining 90 cents, to close at $5.26. Shares of Berry Petroleum ( BRY) rose 3% even though Goldman Sachs lowered estimates, citing higher realized costs and interest expense. Meanwhile, Goldman upped estimates for Southwestern Energy ( SWN), citing higher production and lower depreciation costs. The stock shed 2 cents, or 0.05%, to $42.53. Shares of Whiting Petroleum increased by $1.98, or 2.7%, to $76.83 after Credit Suisse lifted its price target to $80 from $74 on a strong 2010 outlook. In other Nymex news, the April natural gas futures shed 13 cents, or 2.8%, to settle at $4.68 per million British thermal units. The April heating oil contract lost a penny, or 0.6%, to settle at $2.02 a gallon, while the April gasoline contract dropped 3 cents, or 1.5%, to settle at $2.16 a gallon. Late Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute issues its weekly inventory levels for the week ended Feb. 26, followed by data from the Energy Information Administration on Wednesday morning. "Crude supplies are expected to show a modest upswing as imports likely held above the 9 million-barrel per day level with the help of some additional offloading of floating cargos and due to an expected slight drop in runs," said Jim Ritterbusch, an independent analyst. Analysts polled by Platts anticipate an increase of 1.1 million barrels in crude oil supplies, a build of 160,000 barrels in gasoline stockpiles and a decline of 975,000 barrels in distillates stocks. --Written by Sung Moss and Melinda Peer in New York.