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Oil Prices Hit 2019 High as U.S. Sanctions Bite

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03/14/2019 | 02:54pm EDT

By Dan Molinski and Christopher Alessi

-- U.S. oil prices rose to their highest level of the year Thursday as U.S. sanctions on both Venezuela and Iran begin to put a tighter squeeze on global oil supplies.

-- West Texas Intermediate futures, the U.S. oil standard, ended 0.6% higher at $58.61 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That is the highest closing level since Nov. 12, and prices have now risen for four consecutive sessions.

-- Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, ended 0.5% lower at $67.23 a barrel on London's Intercontinental Exchange. Still, that settlement price is the second highest this year.

HIGHLIGHTS

Sanctions: Crude prices have climbed to four-month highs for the past two sessions, helped largely by U.S. sanctions placed on both Iran and Venezuela that are making it increasingly difficult for those oil-rich countries to export any of their crude.

Balint Balazs, global commodity analyst at Schneider Electric, said despite some bearish influences on prices, such as a possible delay on a hoped-for trade deal between China and the U.S., "its effect has been largely outmatched by the ongoing issues around Venezuela, as well as reports about tightening sanctions on Iran by the U.S. The Trump administration aims to reduce the current Iranian export levels by about 20%, likely by limiting the waivers that have been provided earlier to buyers of Iranian crude."

U.S. Inventories: Prices were also supported by data Wednesday from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that showed crude oil stockpiles fell by 3.9 million barrels last week, to stand at 449.1 million barrels. Analysts surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had predicted crude stockpiles would rise by 1.9 million barrels from a week earlier. "Yesterday's EIA report showed a much-larger-than expected decline in U.S. oil inventories, which is supportive of oil prices," said Will Rhind, CEO of GraniteShares, an ETF issuer based in New York. "Though this is the first time in a number of weeks inventories have fallen, the EIA report has consistently showed overall product supply levels falling, which is also supportive of prices."

OPEC: Prices faced some downward pressure early Thursday after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said Thursday in its monthly oil report that its crude output had fallen by 221,000 barrels a day in February from January, to average 30.55 million barrels a day, citing secondary sources. The size of that decline is a sharp drop-off compared with a decrease of 797,000 barrels a day in January, the first month in which a fresh OPEC-led plan to limit production and boost prices took effect.

INSIGHT

OPEC+: Despite Thursday's data showing a slower rate of OPEC production cuts, the oil market continues to be undergirded by the supply-management deal from OPEC, de facto led by Saudi Arabia, and its production allies.

OPEC and a group of 10 partner producers, led by Russia, agreed late last year to collectively hold back output by 1.2 million barrels a day for the first half of 2019, part of an effort to rebalance an increasingly oversupplied market. Venezuela, Iran and Libya are all exempt from the agreement.

But Saudi Arabia, which has shouldered the bulk of the cuts, indicated this week that the production-curb deal could be extended into the second half of this year.

Brent-crude prices have risen roughly 20% since the start of the year, largely on the back of the OPEC-led cuts.

AHEAD

-- The International Energy Agency will release its monthly oil report on Friday.

-- Baker Hughes on Friday releases weekly data on the number of rigs drilling for oil in the U.S., a key metric of activity in the sector.

Write to Dan Molinski at Dan.Molinski@wsj.com and Christopher Alessi at christopher.alessi@wsj.com

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