China exports fall for 2nd straight month in March, while U.S. crude stocks rise, at a record on the Gulf coast (EIA). Libya's oil guards take control of Hariga port, Zueitina pending and OPEC sees lower demand for its crude in 2014. Separately, Brent to fall to $107.17.
Oil prices slipped towards $107 a barrel on Thursday as weaker data from China and OPEC stoked concerns that growth in global oil demand was easing while markets watched for elusive evidence of a resumption in Libyan exports.
Chinese exports unexpectedly fell for a second straight month in March and imports dropped sharply, intensifying expectations of weaker manufacturing and slowing growth in the world's No. 2 economy. Crude imports fell to a five-month low, but rose 2 percent on last year. ID:nL3N0N20O7]
Adding to that bearish outlook, OPEC lowered the forecast demand for its crude oil in 2014 and ended a run of upward revisions to global oil consumption growth.
Brent crude fell 55 cents to $107.43 a barrel by 1244 GMT, after gaining $2.16 over the past two days. U.S. crude fell 24 cents to $103.36.
"We are seeing a further pull-back in oil because China's trade numbers fell short of expectations," said Ben Le Brun, a market analyst at OptionsXpress in Sydney.
On the supply side, markets are watching for evidence that a weekend agreement to open two ports in eastern Libya will bring the OPEC country's exports back onto the market after a nine-month blockade of major oil terminals.
Libya's National Oil Corp lifted force majeure on Hariga, its eastern-most port, on Thursday. However, the force majeure at the recently reopened Zueitina port remained.
The market has reacted more cautiously to news out of Libya, after previous promises of an imminent resumption in exports failed to materialise.
"A resolution ... has become somewhat less likely again, several members of parliament having spoken out against the compromise agreed with the rebels," Commerzbank analysts wrote in a note to clients.
"The opening of the two larger terminals is dependent on conditions which the government will hardly be able to meet."
Further losses in Brent futures were stemmed by optimism from the United States, where the Federal Reserve's policy meeting suggested the central bank may be more cautious towards raising interest rates, easing market concerns of a pullback in stimulus before the economy is ready.
A steep fall in gasoline stockpiles in the United States also put a floor on oil prices, overshadowing a rise in overall crude stockpiles in the world's top consumer.
Gasoline stocks fell by 5.2 million barrels to 210 million barrels in the week ending April 4, Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showed, more than the expected 729,000-barrel draw.
Demand for gasoline was 4.4 percent higher than a year ago at 8.8 million barrels per day (bpd).
Crude inventories rose 4 million barrels to 384 million barrels, much more than the 1.3-million-barrel build expected by analysts polled by Reuters.
Analysts said the gasoline data helped to push the spread between Brent and U.S. crude, or WTI, to just over $4 a barrel on Thursday, its narrowest gap since September.
"Our view is that the U.S. crude market is slack and that this will eventually feed through to WTI and the spread will widen," Gareth Lewis-Davies, senior energy strategist at BNP Paribas, said.
Reporting by Lin Noueihed