SINGAPORE (AP) — Oil prices rose to above $50 a barrel Thursday in Asia as stronger-than-expected results from U.S. retailers suggested the worst of a plunge in American consumer spending may be over.
Benchmark crude for May delivery rose 82 cents to $50.20 a barrel by midday in Singapore in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 23 cents on Wednesday to settle at $49.38.
Oil has traded near $50 for the last week as investors have struggled to glean the health of the U.S. economy as it reels from its worst recession in decades.
So far this week, home decor chain Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. and restaurant Ruby Tuesday Inc. have reported better-than-expected first quarter results while teen retailer Hot Topic Inc. said same-store sales rose more than analysts' forecasts.
Still, some traders are skeptical that the world's largest economy has turned the corner toward recovery.
"I still have to see more to convince me that the economy is turning around," said Clarence Chu, a trader at market maker Hudson Capital Energy in Singapore. "I see oil trading between $45 and $50 for a while."
U.S. crude inventory numbers were mixed. For the week ended Friday crude supplies increased by 1.7 million barrels to 361.1 million barrels, 15.2 percent above year-ago levels, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report on Wednesday.
Analysts expected a boost of 2.3 million barrels, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.
Gasoline inventories rose by 600,000 barrels to 217.4 million barrels, 1.4 percent below year earlier levels. Analysts expected stockpiles of the motor fuel to fall by 1.5 million barrels
"Crude inventories are still building and were in the ballpark of what was expected," Chu said.
Inventories of distillate fuel, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 3.4 million barrels to 140.8 million barrels. Analysts expected distillate stocks to slip 600,000 barrels.
Demand for gasoline over the four weeks ended Friday was 0.2 percent lower than a year earlier, averaging about 9.1 million barrels a day.
Gasoline demand will likely increase as drivers head out on summer vacations, buoyed by oil prices that have fallen from a record $147 a barrel in July, Chu said.
"I don't expect demand will pick up dramatically given the weak economy, but gasoline is now much cheaper compared to last year.
In other Nymex trading, gasoline for May delivery rose 1.69 cents to $1.46 a gallon and heating oil gained to 1.19 cents to $1.41 a gallon. Natural gas for May delivery was steady at $3.63 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, Brent prices rose 57 cents to $52.16 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.