Oil edged higher toward $50 a barrel on Thursday but gains were limited as mixed data from the United States and China reminded investors that any signs of economic recovery were still tentative.

U.S. crude for May delivery was up 15 cents at $49.40 a barrel by 1519 GMT (11:19 a.m. EDT), after rising to $50.48 earlier in the session. ICE Brent crude for the new front month June was up 66 cents at $53.10 a barrel.

In the United States, the world's largest energy consumer, the number of workers filing new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly fell last week, but continuing claims rose to a record as the recession bit.

China, the world's number two energy consumer, said its economy grew a slower-than-expected 6.1 percent in the first quarter but also showed improvements in March, signaling the worst of the slowdown could be over.

Equity markets were weighed down by financial shares on Thursday as investors fretted about the quality of bank earnings, despite better-than-expected results from JPMorgan Chase.

Oil is only being supported near $50 a barrel by much higher prices along the forward curve, as the market expects fundamentals to improve toward the end of the year, Bache Commodities broker Christopher Bellew said.

Oil contracts for delivery in December are trading near $60 a barrel.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said on Wednesday world oil demand would fall 1.37 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2009, revised from its previous forecast for a fall of 1.01 million bpd.

Both the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) have also cut their global demand forecasts as the slowdown curbs consumption.

But OPEC production cuts and a possible economic recovery are expected to tighten the market later this year.

The drop in demand has seen U.S. crude oil inventories soar to their highest level since September 1990, gaining 5.6 million barrels last week alone, the EIA's weekly report showed on Wednesday.

The U.S. inventory stats were really, really bad and we expected oil to fall to around $43 to $48, but the bottom was pretty firm even with the terrible data, said Tony Nunan, risk manager at Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Corp.

It looks like the market has found its bottom, but it's going to struggle to go up from here.

(Editing by Sue Thomas)