Oil pulls back from recent gains, but traders remain optimistic on China demand

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Oil futures edged lower on Tuesday, easing back after recent gains but underpinned by continued optimism over the demand outlook from China after the country dropped COVID restrictions.

Natural-gas futures moved lower after posting a gain of more than 6% a day earlier on forecasts for colder U.S. weather.

Price action
  • West Texas Intermediate crude for March delivery
    CL00,
    -1.27%

    CL.1,
    -1.27%

    CLH23,
    -1.27%
    fell 67 cents, or 0.8%, to $80.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

  • March Brent crude
    BRNH23,
    -1.41%,
    the global benchmark, was down 70 cents, or 0.8%, at $87.49 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe. April Brent
    BRNJ23,
    -1.32%,
    the most actively traded contract, traded at $87.46 a barrel, down 70 cents, or 0.8%.

  • Back on Nymex, February gasoline
    RBG23,
    -1.49%
    fell 1.5% to $2.6548 a gallon, while February heating oil
    HOG23,
    -2.17%
    shed 0.3% to $3.5412 a gallon.

  • February natural gas
    NGG23,
    -2.49%
    declined by 0.3% to $3.437 per million British thermal units, ahead of its Friday expiration. March natural gas
    NG00,
    -3.35%

    NGH23,
    -3.38%,
    the most actively traded contract, was down 1.7% at $3.168 per million BTUs.

Market drivers

Crude-oil prices saw a mixed finish Monday, with WTI losing ground as Brent extended its winning streak to a third session. Expectations for a pickup in crude demand from China have served to support crude since a dip to start the year.

There have also been worries about a recession in the U.S. that could hurt oil demand. On Tuesday, an S&P survey showed that U.S. businesses contracted again in January as demand for goods and services fell for the fourth month in a row. The survey did show some signs of modest improvement.

The S&P Global “flash” U.S. services sector index rose to a three-month high of 46.6 from 44.7 in December. The service side of the economy employs most Americans. Any number below 50 suggests a contracting economy.

Still, some analysts contend crude’s gains remain underwhelming relative to other commodities.

Expectations for a recovery in Chinese demand “have yet to translate into substantial gains for crude oil, whose rebound has been somewhat tame compared with other commodities such as copper, amid some concerns about how smooth China’s reopening will be,” said Raffie Boyadjian, lead investment analyst at XM, in a note.

WTI is up 1.8% so far in January, based on the most actively traded contract, while Brent has risen 2.7%. Copper
HG00,
-0.33%
has jumped more than 11% over the same stretch.

Read: What’s behind copper’s impressive rise?

On Feb. 5, the European Union will impose a ban on imports of Russia-refined petroleum products, and a price cap on Russian oil products will also take effect. That follows an EU embargo and G7 price cap on Russian seaborne oil last month.

“A key question is whether these measures are already lowering or will further lower Russian oil production,” said Stephen Innes, managing partner at SPI Asset Management, in a market update.

Meanwhile, the OPEC+ Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC), which reviews the oil market, is expected to meet on Feb. 1. The next full meeting of members of the policy-setting Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and their allies is scheduled for June.

The JMMC is expected to “endorse the producer’s groups current output policy and hope that Chinese demand will balance out worries over inflation and global economic slowdown,” the Kansas City energy at StoneX wrote in a Tuesday report.

The U.S. will get a weekly update on petroleum supplies from the Energy Information Administration on Wednesday. On average, analysts expect the report to show supply declines of 2.4 million barrels for crude, 100,000 barrels for gasoline and 1.6 million barrels for distillates, according to a survey conducted by S&P Global Commodity Insights.

Natural gas has rebounded this week after a sharp slump to begin the year amid unseasonably warm temperatures across much of the U.S. Still, it remains down more than 20% so far in January, after a selloff that left the commodity deeply oversold and vulnerable to a short-covering rally, wrote analysts at Sevens Report Research.

“Looking ahead, more volatile trade is likely with the market susceptible to squeezy rallies, but the current trend is decidedly bearish right now with a break below $3.00 a distinct possibility in the months ahead,” they wrote.