Oil prices tumbled back below $72 a barrel Tuesday as a stronger dollar dented investor demand for commodities and outweighed concerns about an expected OPEC output cut.
At the pump, consumers got another price cut as a gallon of regular gasoline lost 3.4 cents overnight to a new national average of $2.89, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. Prices have fallen 30 percent from their July 11 peak of $4.11 a gallon and are quickly closing in on year-ago levels.
The dollar muscled higher against rival currencies as credit market conditions eased some and on speculation that the U.S. government might roll out another stimulus package in an effort to push the economy out of a deep downturn.
Investors often buy commodities like crude oil as an inflation hedge when the dollar weakens and sell those investments when the greenback rises.
Light, sweet crude for November delivery fell $2.75 to $71.50 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after earlier dropping as low as $71. On Monday, the contract rose rose $2.40 to settle at $74.25 a barrel.
Crude oil is down 51 percent from its all-time peak of $147.27 reached July 11.
Alarmed by the rapid slide, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which controls 40 percent of the world's oil supply, is holding an extraordinary meeting Friday in Vienna. OPEC's president, Chakib Khelil, said Sunday the group is planning to announce an output reduction that analysts believe could total at least 1 million barrels a day.
But experts are divided over how much impact on OPEC cut will have on prices. Some believe waning global demand for energy will push prices as low as $50 a barrel, while others say a significant supply reduction could halt the downward the momentum.
"If OPEC does cut production, prices could return to the upside over the next three to six months," said Costanza Jacazio, an oil analyst with Barclays Capital in New York.
She said tighter global supplies could eventually push prices back toward the $90 range, a level believed to be favored by several OPEC members including Iran and Venezuela.
Oil-producing countries are facing steep serious budget shortfalls as oil prices come down from record levels. Khelil has said OPEC may cut output again at a meeting in December, and that the group considers the oil market oversupplied by about 2 million barrels a day.
Investors are also keeping a close eye on whether non-OPEC producers, such as Russia, will reduce supply as analysts lower price expectations for next year. Deutsche Bank on Monday cut its 2009 oil price forecast to $60 a barrel from $92 and predicted $57.50 for 2010.
"Producers are getting concerned about this downward spiral in pricing since the summer," said Victor Shum, an energy analyst at consultancy Purvin & Gertz in Singapore. "Some governments have based their budgets higher than current prices."
Oil market traders are also closely watching economic conditions in the U.S.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Budget Committee on Monday that a fresh round of government measures might help ease the country's downturn. There were also signs Tuesday of a reviving credit market as bank-to-bank lending rates eased further.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 3.69 cents to $2.1930 a gallon, while gasoline prices lost 2.85 cents to $1.6916 a gallon. Natural gas for December delivery fell 1.3 cents to $7.198 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, December Brent crude fell $2.24 to $69.79 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.