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Price of oil nose-dives

Profit-taking causes drop; analysts warn that it might not last

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Oil prices fell sharply Monday in what traders described as a wave of profit-taking after futures hit a new high above $55 a barrel and after gasoline futures fell sharply on indications of declining demand.

November crude futures plunged $1.26, or 2 percent, to settle at $53.67 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. November gasoline futures sank 5.9 cents, or 4 percent, to $1.3504 per gallon.

The slide in prices might not last, analysts said, explaining that it could provide the basis for fresh buying in a market that is still ill-at-ease about the world's limited supply cushion.

"I think the mantra 'buy the dips' is still firmly in place," said Aaron Kildow, a broker with Prudential Financial Inc. in New York.

Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant in New York, attributed Monday's downward momentum to profit taking, which began after oil prices briefly surpassed $55 a barrel, as well as to signs of lower demand for gasoline.

"It's more than the normal seasonal drop-off in demand," Silliere said, "and we think it's price related."

The Energy Department reported last week that the average daily demand for gasoline for the four weeks ending Oct. 8 was 8.94 million barrels, down 0.4 percent from the same period a year earlier.

On Monday, the Energy Department reported that the retail price of gasoline rose for the fifth straight week to nearly $2.04 per gallon.

The government survey said the average price nationwide of regular-grade unleaded gasoline increased 4.2 cents last week to $2.035. Prices are 46.4 cents higher than a year ago.

Average nationwide prices peaked at $2.06 a gallon during the week ending May 22.

Pump prices are highest on the West Coast, averaging $2.295 per gallon, and cheapest on the Gulf Coast, averaging $1.913 per gallon. In the Midwest, gas averages $1.990 per gallon.

Crude oil prices are up about 75 percent from a year ago. However, even at current levels, crude oil prices are still about $27 below the all-time highs — in inflation-adjusted terms — of February 1981.

Prices have skyrocketed about $10 in the past month, primarily over production delays in the Gulf of Mexico, where Hurricane Ivan hit in mid-September.

Declines in U.S. inventories of heating oil, diesel and jet fuel just before the Northern Hemisphere winter are the latest in a line of supply factors to rattle the market.

The Energy Department said last week that commercially available supplies of heating oil declined by 1.2 million barrels for the week ending Oct. 8, falling to 50.0 million barrels, or 10 percent below year-ago levels.

But given today's soaring price of heating oil, Silliere said he expects the industry to begin cranking out large amounts of fuel. Once refiners perform seasonal maintenance "they're going to make nothing but heating oil."

Heating oil prices fell 3.94 cents to $1.5097 a gallon Monday afternoon on Nymex.

Others remain concerned about winter fuels. "We are heading for winter, and stocks in the U.S., Europe and Japan are significantly lower than they were a year ago," said Axel Busch, the chief correspondent for Energy Intelligence Group in London. "If we get a cold snap, or a cold winter, we will see prices go higher."

In the Gulf of Mexico, more than 20 million barrels of crude remain shut in as recovery efforts continue to get production levels back to normal, the U.S. federal Minerals Management Service said on its Web site.

But with the amount of excess capacity — immediate surplus supply — at about 1 percent of daily demand, now estimated to be above 82 million barrels, any supply outage is expected to factor into prices.

"Anything that's slightly bullish could scare the market right back up," said Prudential's Kildow.

Contributing: Jane Wardell; Yeoh En-Lai