Oil eased below $45 on Thursday, after surging nearly 9 percent overnight on government data showing a surprise drop in U.S. crude stocks, which could signal recovering demand in the world's top energy consumer.
Traders will await the release of weekly U.S. initial jobless benefit claims and January factory orders due later in the day, as well as February unemployment data out on Friday, for further clues on the health of the U.S. economy.
Prices were also supported by the remarks of 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.
U.S. crude was down 44 cents at $44.94 a barrel by 3:05 a.m. EST, after hitting a morning high of $45.70, while London Brent crude fell 54 cents to $45.58 a barrel.
The momentum is bullish and could have a few legs -- China is really engaged on the front foot with its stimulus package, and we're approaching the end of winter and going into a period where the driving season in the U.S. starts, so we might see crude inventories fall further, said Peter McGuire, Managing Director of Commodity Warrants Australia.
I wouldn't be surprised to see crude edging up to test the high $40s by mid-month, maybe even touching $50.
The U.S. Energy Information Association said crude stocks declined by 700,000 barrels last week, countering analyst expectations for a 1.2-million-barrel build.
Demand for gasoline over the past four weeks also rose 2.2 percent from a year ago. Year-over-year gasoline demand has increased in the last several weeks, possibly indicating the start of a rebound in demand.
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.
Wen did not announce fresh economic stimulus as some investors had hoped, but his assurances helped extend a rally in Asian markets, after shares worldwide surged on Wednesday on reports China may boost spending to spur growth.
TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT?
Optimism over China helped boost global stocks from multiyear lows on Wednesday, while metals prices rose, and the U.S. dollar scaled four-month peaks against the yen.
Oil prices have traded in a narrow band around $40 since mid-December, pressured by slumping demand from the global economic downturn, but drawing support from expectations OPEC might cut production again when it meets on March 15.
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.
Ecuador also said it sees no need for more reductions at the next meeting, while other OPEC members have yet to make a decision.
But Venezuela, Algeria and Libya have raised the possibility of a further cut.
In the United States, last week's first-time claims for jobless benefits, due at 1330 GMT, are likely to show a total of 650,000 new filings, compared with 667,000 in the prior week.
January factory orders, due at 1500 GMT, are expected to fall 3.5 percent, down from a 3.9 percent drop in the previous month.
But Friday's employment report could show job losses accelerated last month, and the unemployment rate surged to a 25-year high. The market consensus is that non-farm payrolls shed about 650,000 jobs in February.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)