Oil fell more than a dollar to below $44 on Thursday as a record drop in euro zone economic performance heightened expectations that fuel consumption would shrink further.

Oil prices had surged nearly 9 percent in the previous session due to a surprise drop in U.S. crude stocks, which may indicate a recovery in demand in the top energy consumer.

But data showing euro zone gross domestic product (GDP) fell by a record 1.5 percent in the last quarter of 2008, as exports and household demand collapsed, forced traders to refocus on falling global consumption.

The economic outlook is still pretty grim and I don't think these bits of bullish data are enough to counteract this in the short-term, Christopher Bellew at Bache Commodities said.

U.S. crude slipped $1.51 to $43.87 a barrel by 7:24 a.m. EST, after earlier hitting a month high of $45.70, while London Brent crude fell $1.63 to $44.49.

Oil prices gained some support from remarks by China's Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday that the No. 2 oil consumer would achieve 8 percent growth this year -- a level considered key to maintain employment growth -- despite the deepening global recession.

China's gauge of the health of its manufacturing sector, the purchasing managers' index (PMI), gained for the third month in a row in February, suggesting the domestic economy, and oil demand, could be recovering.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said crude stocks declined by 700,000 barrels last week, while gasoline demand rose 2.2 percent from a year ago, as lower prices boosted consumption.

Traders were also eyeing the release of a raft of economic data in the U.S., including jobless benefit claims and January factory orders, for clues on the health of the world's largest economy.


Oil prices have traded in a narrow band near $40 since mid-December, caught between slumping demand and the possibility of further OPEC output cuts when the group meets on March 15.

The market is still rangebound as any bullish news has been kept in check by the global economic meltdown, Bank of Ireland analyst Paul Harris said.

But the next OPEC meeting is coming into focus, and they will probably have to act to convince the market they are really serious about continuing to restrict production.

OPEC planned to lower oil output by 4.2 million barrels per day from production levels in September, in a bid to boost falling prices, and a Reuters survey found OPEC members had already met at least 81 percent of their target.

Angola, which currently holds the presidency of the 12-member group, will not advocate further production cuts when the group meets on March 15 in Vienna, OPEC sources said on Wednesday.

But Venezuela, Algeria and Libya have raised the possibility of a further cut.

(Reporting by David Sheppard; Editing by Anthony Barker)