Oil's biggest day yet drags down stocks
By ADAM SCHRECK, AP Business Writer
Fri Jun 6, 11:55 PM ET
NEW YORK - Oil prices made their biggest single-day leap ever Friday, dragging the Dow Jones industrials down nearly 400 points and raising the once-unthinkable prospect of $150 oil and more record gas prices by the Fourth of July.
The meteoric rise of nearly $11 for the day piled atop an increase of almost $5.50 the day before, taking oil futures more than 13 percent higher in just two days, easily a record on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
And those weren't the only stunning numbers of the day: The government also reported the nation's unemployment rate zoomed to 5.5 percent in May, a monthly rise of half a percentage point, the biggest in 22 years.
Oil settled at $138.54, a rise of more than 8 percent. The surged came after Morgan Stanley analyst Ole Slorer predicted strong demand in Asia and tight supplies in the Western Hemisphere could drive prices to $150 by Independence Day, when millions of Americans take to the roads.
That means no end in sight for spiraling gas prices, already above $4 per gallon in much of the country.
Even longtime market observers were shocked by the magnitude and speed of oil's rally.
"We're ... somewhat off the map as far as historical precedents are concerned," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Ill.
Besides the jump in the unemployment rate, the Labor Department said employers had cut 49,000 jobs in May, the fifth straight month of nationwide losses. Job losses for the year reached 324,000.
The White House said President Bush was considering further plans to help energize the economy, already teetering on the edge of recession and crippled by a tumbling housing market and other factors.
On Wall Street, the Dow plunged 394.64 points, more than 3 percent, to close at 12,209.81, the biggest drop in more than 15 months in both percentage and points terms.
Wall Street had managed to shrug off oil's advance on Thursday but succumbed to extreme anxiety Friday.
The stock market's great concern of late has been whether consumers would curb their spending on non-essentials as they were forced to pay more for gas and other staples.
The previously unthinkable idea of $150 oil, and gasoline that will keep climbing above $4, made it clear to investors that consumers would be forced to be even more conservative than they have been in recent months.
Before Thursday, oil had receded nearly $13 a barrel from its highs, a respite from its nearly record-every-day march. But the end of the week sent it right back up again.
The burst in oil prices also raised the prospect of accelerating inflation by adding to already strained transportation costs — which will send prices higher throughout the economy.
Light, sweet crude for July delivery officially finished the day at $138.54, up $10.75 on the Nymex. But after the settlement, the contract jumped as high as $139.12. Prices hit a previous record of $135.09 a barrel on May 22, and settled Thursday at $127.79.
Traders also zeroed in on remarks by an Israeli Cabinet minister who was quoted as saying his country will attack Iran if it doesn't abandon its nuclear program. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz added that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "will disappear before Israel does," the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.
Iran is the second-biggest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and traders worry that any conflict with Israel could disrupt global supplies.
A further weakening of the dollar also helped send oil prices higher by enticing overseas buyers armed with stronger currencies and others looking for a hedge against the greenback. But it also represented a stampede by bullish traders and optimistic computer models betting that prices still have further to rise.
"The bulls ... refuse to go away," said Stephen Schork, an analyst and trader in Villanova, Pa.
Meanwhile, U.S. gas prices at the pump continued to hover just shy of an average $4 a gallon, easing only 0.3 cent from Thursday's record.
Drivers are now paying an average of $3.99 for a gallon of regular gas nationwide, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service; in many parts of the country, consumers are already paying well over $4. Retail diesel slipped a penny overnight to $4.76.
Pump prices are bound to rise even further if oil sustains its advance. James Cordier, president of Tampa, Fla.-based trading firm Liberty Trading Group, predicted prices could rise to $4.25 as early as the end of the month.
"Unfortunately, drivers cutting back isn't going to lower the price of gasoline anytime soon," he said.
The dramatic reversal in what had been a weakening oil market began Thursday after ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet suggested the bank could raise interest rates and the euro climbed against the dollar. When interest rates rise in Europe, or fall in the U.S., the dollar tends to weaken against the euro.
Many traders buy commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation when the dollar is falling, and a weaker dollar makes oil cheaper for investors dealing in other currencies. Analysts believe the dollar's protracted decline has been a major reason why oil prices have nearly doubled in the past year.
The euro strengthened further against the greenback Friday. A Labor Department report showing the U.S. unemployment rate jumped half a percentage point to 5.5 percent last month — its biggest monthly increase since 1986 — could drag the dollar even lower in the days ahead.
"Unemployment jumping as it did today will be in the market for a long time and will continue to pressure the U.S. dollar," Cordier said.
The influx of so much fresh money into the energy markets has caught the attention of federal watchdogs. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission recently said it was six months into a probe of U.S. oil markets focused on possible price manipulation.
Asked about Friday's surge, CFTC spokesman R. David Gary said: "People are aware of what's happening and are monitoring the markets closely, but beyond that there is no comment."
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures jumped 29.32 cents to settle at $3.974 a gallon, while gasoline prices rose 21.35 cents to settle at $3.548 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 17.4 cents to settle at $12.693 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, July Brent crude shot up $10.15 to settle at $137.69 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
AP Business Writer Matthew Perrone in Washington contributed reporting.