Crude futures slightly higher as traders eye Iran talks

NEW YORK–U.S. crude futures rose slightly Tuesday, holding as traders gauge the fallout from Italy’s election and the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers.

The statement from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that signaled the central bank would continue its bond-buying programs also helped keep crude-oil in positive territory.

Light, sweet crude for April delivery recently traded 28 cents higher at $93.39 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange for April delivery traded 20 cents lower at $114.24 a barrel.

National elections in Italy haven’t offered any group a clear majority in the country’s Senate, increasing the odds of political gridlock and complicating efforts to calm investors worried about Europe’s debt crisis.

Meanwhile, nuclear talks began Tuesday between Iran and six major powers in Kazakhstan, with the international community pushing Iran to commit to ending the most threatening element of its nuclear program involving the production of near weapons-grade fuel.

“It’s very much a game of wait and see with these events, clarity on Italy, clarity on Iranian talks,” said Matt Smith, commodity analyst at Schneider Electric.

Investors are keeping close watch on the Iran talks, as negotiators from the international community are poised to offer Iran relief on economic sanctions if it curtails parts of its nuclear program. A major exporter and one of the largest producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Iran has cut its crude production to the lowest level in 30 years due to recent sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Any sign that progress was made at the meeting will lead to a likely sell-off in oil,” said Dominick Chirichella, an analyst at the Energy Management Institute.

Oil prices have held near flat this week despite volatile moves in broader markets.

Futures have slumped through February, down 4.7% this month as prices retreated from levels close to $100 a barrel amid high U.S. inventories and concerns that rising gasoline prices could lead to falling demand.

Ahead of his testimony on Capitol Hill, Fed Chairman Bernanke said in a statement that while the central bank takes “very seriously” the risk that Fed policies could fuel excessive risk taking, the benefits of the Fed’s programs currently outweigh the costs.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration is expected to show crude-oil stockpiles rose 2.3 million barrels last week, according to a preliminary survey of analysts conducted by Dow Jones Newswires. Inventories are already at their highest level for this time of year based on EIA data beginning in 1982.

Front-month March reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, recently traded 6.24 cents lower at $2.9987 a gallon. March heating oil recently traded 0.9% lower at $3.0700 a gallon.

By The Wall Street Journal


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