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Oil Inches Higher, on Track for Weekly Gain

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05/17/2019 | 10:52am EDT

By Amrith Ramkumar

-- Oil prices inched higher Friday and were on track for a fourth consecutive advance, boosted by geopolitical uncertainty surrounding supply from Iran and Venezuela despite some cautious sentiment about continuing trade talks.

-- West Texas Intermediate futures, the U.S. price benchmark, was up 0.7% at $63.33 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices are up about 39% for the year, though they are down more than 4.5% from their April peaks.

-- Brent crude, the global price gauge, added 0.2% to $72.74 a barrel on London's Intercontinental Exchange.

HIGHLIGHTS

Geopolitical Tensions: Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have ratcheted up this week, boosting oil as analysts brace for the possibility of even lower supply from the sanctions-hit Islamic Republic. Earlier this week, a U.S. official said Iran likely was behind recent attacks on oil tankers in waters off the United Arab Emirates, something Tehran has strenuously denied.

The possibility of intensifying military tensions in the Persian Gulf could add to supply uncertainty in the oil market, analysts say, with Iran and Venezuela already hit by U.S. sanctions and a battle for control in Libya also potentially leading to lower supply.

Those three countries were exempted from production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that are in place through June and have also lifted prices. Venezuela and Iran alone accounted for about 37% of the 2.3-million-barrel-a-day drop in OPEC supply between November and April, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Analysts are waiting to see whether Saudi Arabia, the de facto head of OPEC, and other large exporters will continue curbing output beyond June.

Trade Fears: Stocks and other risk assets edged lower Friday with some analysts still wary of higher tariffs in the U.S.-China trade spat slowing the global economy and weakening commodity demand. Oil has generally traded in tandem with stocks in recent days as sentiment about the two sides reaching an agreement shifts, potentially limiting crude's Friday gains, analysts said.

INSIGHT

Crucial Time: In addition to uncertainty surrounding trade talks and OPEC supply, new sulfur regulations for shipping fuels, known as IMO 2020, could also swing prices in the coming months.

"Weakness in manufacturing may drag down services if trade wars eventually hurt consumer sentiment. In a global downturn, Brent could slip to $50," Bank of America's analysts said in a note. "On the other hand, under a U.S.-China deal scenario, business confidence may return with a vengeance.... If a cyclical global demand upturn coincides with an IMO2020 boost, Brent crude oil prices could spike to $90."

AHEAD

-- Baker Hughes is due to release its weekly rig-count report later Friday at 1 p.m. ET.

Write to Amrith Ramkumar at amrith.ramkumar@wsj.com

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