Oil prices steadied on Thursday as economic optimism from data showing that the U.S. service sector and retail sales improved was tempered by disappointing news from the labor market.

U.S. crude prices for October delivery rose 8 cents to $68.13 a barrel by 1:37 p.m. EDT, after earlier reaching a high of $69.40 on U.S. stock gains and a weaker dollar.

London Brent crude was down 36 cents at $67.30 a barrel.

Right now, there's not a whole lot of momentum here in either direction. I think the trend for the week, which has been down, is still in force, said Tom Bentz, senior commodity analyst, BNP Paribas commodity Futures Inc in New York.

U.S. jobless claims fell last week, according to a report released by the Department of Labor on Thursday, but the prior week's figure was revised up.

The number of people collecting long-term unemployment benefits rose to 6.23 million in the week ended August 22, well above market expectations for 6.12 million.

U.S. stocks edged up on Thursday on better-than-expected sales from retailers in August. <.N>

The Institute for Supply Management released a report on Thursday showing that while the U.S. services sector shrank in August, an index measuring activity was at its highest in nearly a year.

Oil inventory data that indicated some demand recovery released by the U.S. government on Wednesday failed to push prices much higher.

Total crude oil product demand rose 0.1 percent during the past four weeks compared with year-ago levels and gasoline demand increased 0.5 percent during the same period.

The question is what is going to be the major influence on the market going forward and if the demand growth from economic recovery has already been priced in, said Peter Beutel, analyst at Cameron Hanover in New Canaan, Connecticut.


Oil prices are not likely to break out of the confines of the current range in the short term, analysts said.

U.S. crude prices have been rangebound, between $65 to $75 a barrel since the start of August, fluctuating on the latest clues about the speed of an impending economic recovery.

There isn't the structural tightness for the market to break out of this range, said Petromatrix analyst Olivier Jakob, pointing to brimming global distillates such as diesel stored on land and at sea.

Traders were also eyeing news that big oil producers are increasing output. Russian oil output hit a record high in August, nearing 10 million barrels per day as the country launched a new giant field.

OPEC is expected to leave output targets unchanged when it next meets on September 9 in Vienna.

(Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Catherine Bosley in London; Robert Gibbons and Gene Ramos in New York City; Editing by Marguerita Choy)