U.S. crude-oil futures pulled back from a four-month high Thursday as oil traders' recent optimism about economic growth faded ahead of Friday's monthly jobs data.
The number of U.S. workers filing for unemployment benefits jumped last week to a higher-than-expected 368,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday, which has prompted some worries about the more closely watched January U.S. employment report.
With such qualms, many cashed in on bets of higher prices, traders said. U.S. crude futures had risen 14% over the last seven weeks.
"The energy and equities [markets] are pricing in a pretty good number tomorrow, so oil may sell off on it. If we get a bad number, it could sell off even more," said Rich Ilczyszyn, a broker and trader at iiTrader in Chicago. "I think there's going to be a correction."
Light, sweet crude for March delivery settled 45 cents, or 0.5%, lower, at $97.49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange traded 61 cents higher, at $115.51 a barrel.
Gasoline prices also slumped Thursday, ending a 10-session rally as traders took profits before the expiration of the February contract.
Seasonal refinery maintenance has tightened supply and driven gasoline prices up sharply in the past two weeks, with gasoline futures settling at an all-time high for January of $3.0315 a gallon Wednesday. But investors stepped back from bullish bets, concerned that prices rallied too high, too quickly.
"We were due for a pullback in gasoline," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch & Associates. "We had a huge price spike, and now we're seeing a little correction."
Front-month February reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 1.29 cents lower at $3.0258 a gallon. February heating oil settled 1.25 cents higher at $3.1298 a gallon.
The February fuel-product futures expired at settlement Thursday.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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