By PABLO GORONDIThe price of oil hovered above $97 a barrel Monday as investors prepared for key U.S. economic reports and a Federal Reserve policy meeting this week. By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark U.S. crude for December delivery was down 40 cents at $97.45 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 74 cents to $97.85 on Friday but closed out the week with a 2.9 percent loss, largely due to signs of oversupply and muted demand. U.S. data releases this week include September industrial production, retail sales, inflation and consumer confidence as well as a Fed policy meeting that could reinforce expectations that the central bank won't begin reducing its mammoth monetary stimulus until well into next year. The expansion of the U.S. money supply is aimed at supporting economic recovery and reducing high unemployment but has also been a boon for investors in stocks and commodities. The timing of the stimulus withdrawal has become a matter of intense speculation in markets. The market will also be on the watch for data on U.S. stockpiles of crude and refined products. Figures for the week ending Oct. 25 are due for release late Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration, crude stocks rose by 21.5 million barrels between the end of September and Oct. 18 and stood nearly 10 percent higher than the five-year average. "Any further increase in U.S. crude oil stocks is likely to put renewed pressure on oil prices as the week progresses," said a report from analysts at Commerzbank in Frankfurt. Brent crude, a benchmark for international crude also used by U.S. refineries, was up 80 cents at $107.73 on the ICE Futures exchange in London. In other energy futures trading on the Nymex: a¿¿ Wholesale gasoline added 0.99 cent to $2.5773 a gallon.
a¿¿ Natural gas fell 9.3 cents to $3.614 per 1,000 cubic feet.a¿¿ Heating oil rose 1.32 cents to $2.9221 a gallon.