Crude Inches Toward $100 in Light Trading

Crude futures settled slightly higher Friday following improving U.S. economic data, though light volume signaled many early departures for the Christmas holiday.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery rose 15 cents to settle at $99.68 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange traded 38 cents higher at $108 a barrel.

Oil futures held close to triple digits after a report on durable goods orders beat expectations. Manufacturers' orders for longer-lasting goods rose 3.8% in November, offering some optimism on the U.S. manufacturing sector, an important driver of energy use.

"Anything that says the economy is getting stronger should help bolster prices," said Peter Beutel, president of trading adviser Cameron Hanover.

The increase leaned heavily on strong demand for civilian airplanes, however. Coupled with lackluster increases in U.S. personal income and spending, oil traders were reluctant to show too much optimism.

Trading was especially light Friday ahead of the holidays, with volume at settlement easily the lowest level this year.

"There's no volume; there's nothing. Nobody is calling in," said Mark Waggoner, president of Excel Futures.

Through December, futures have settled into a trading range anchored by the key $100 mark. Europe's debt crisis has capped further gains above that level even as an improving economic picture in the U.S. is offering some support to prices as traders see rising oil demand ahead.

The Labor Department on Thursday said new jobless claims fell to the lowest level since April 2008. And earlier this week, the Energy Department reported a surprise 10.6 million-barrel drop in U.S. oil stockpiles, the largest weekly drop in more than a decade, bringing total inventories to a three-year low of 324 million barrels.

The gains Friday put oil's return for the week at 6.6%, making up for the 5.9% decline in the week-earlier period.

Front-month January reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 4.74 cents, or 1.8%, higher at $2.6872 a gallon. January heating oil settled 1.69 cents lower at $2.8907 a gallon.


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