Oil prices edged slightly higher this morning but remained under $100 a barrel as traders weighed whether an apparent pickup in the U.S. economy could spur enough demand to offset a slowdown in China and tension in the Ukraine.
Benchmark U.S. crude for April delivery was up 2 cents to $98.22 a barrel in overnight electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 21 cents to close at $98.20 on Thursday.
Brent crude, used to set prices for international varieties of crude, was up 5 cents to $106.97 on the ICE exchange in London.
Global markets from stocks to commodities have been roiled this week by signs of weakness in the Chinese economy and tensions in Ukraine.
China is one of the top consumers of energy, so an economic slowdown there could dial back demand for oil. At the same time, Russia is one of the top producers of oil worldwide, meaning that any Western sanctions against Moscow for its military incursion into the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula could affect global supplies.
Still, recent good news about the U.S. economy helped underpin prices on Friday. American retail sales bounced back in February after suffering a steep decline during a bitterly cold January. Shoppers spent more on autos, clothing and furniture. And the number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level in three months.
In other energy futures trading on Nymex:
— Wholesale gasoline shed 0.2 cent to $2.906 a gallon.
— Heating oil was up 0.7 cent to $2.911 a gallon.
— Natural gas lost 3.1 cents to $4.352 per 1,000 cubic feet