Crude futures steadied on Thursday, trading little changed after a 1.8 percent drop the day before due to a big rise in U.S. crude inventories and talk of a release of U.S. and some European strategic reserves.


NYMEX crude for May delivery was up 15 cents at $105.56 a barrel by 8.00 p.m. EDT, after settling $1.92 lower at $105.41 on Wednesday.

Even with Wednesday's losses, NYMEX was on pace to post a more than 6 percent rise for the first quarter, with Brent crude up 15 percent, as rising tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear program have kept oil prices elevated this year.

London Brent crude for May delivery was up 7 cents at $124.23, after settling down $1.38 at $124.16.

Wednesday's losses came after U.S. Energy Information Administration data showed U.S. crude stocks rose by 7.1 million barrels last week, more than forecast.

Gasoline inventories declined by a more-than-expected 3.54 million barrels and distillate stocks fell 700,000 barrels.

Crude also came under pressure after a report that France is in contact with Britain and the United States on a possible release of strategic oil stocks.

A release of strategic oil stocks is a matter of weeks, French newspaper Le Monde daily said.

Goldman Sachs said it was shifting its recommendation on commodities to neutral from overweight on a near-term horizon, as most commodity markets including copper, crude oil and soybeans have reached the brokerage's near-term targets.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi blasted irrationally high oil prices in an opinion piece in the Financial Times, but offered no sign that the kingdom was moving to boost output.

With Iran's oil exports facing the threat of tightening sanctions, Saudi Arabia is expected to have a record 140 oil and gas rigs operating by the end of the year, industry sources said.


U.S. stocks declined on Wednesday as sliding oil and metals prices gave investors a reason to sell commodity-related shares. <.N>

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> fell 71.52 points, or 0.54 percent, to 13,126.21 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> slipped 6.98 points, or 0.49 percent, to 1,405.54.

The yen held on to gains early in Asia on Thursday but could see renewed pressure as flows linked to Japan's financial year-end look to have peaked.


The following data is expected on Thursday: (Time in EDT)

- 7.50 p.m. Japan retail sales/Feb

- 5.00 a.m. Euro Zone Business climate/Mar

- 8.30 a.m. US Final GDP/Q4

- 8.30 a.m. US Jobless claims/weekly

- 10.30 a.m. US EIA underground natural gas stocks/weekly

(Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Edmund Klamann)