Oil falls to near $72 amid mixed US economic data

SINGAPORE: Oil prices fell to near $72 a barrel Friday in Asia as mixed economic data from the U.S. point to a slow recovery.

Benchmark crude for October delivery was down 68 cents to $72.23 a barrel by midday in Singapore in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Thursday, the contract fell 92 cents to settle at $72.91.

The September contract, which expired Thursday, advanced 12 cents to end at $72.54.

Investors are mulling news that suggests U.S. consumption remains weak as the economy recovers from recession.

The Labor Department on Thursday said the number of first-time unemployment claims rose unexpectedly for the second straight week. And the Mortgage Bankers Association said more than 13 percent of homeowners with a mortgage are either behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

"There are no real signs that consumption in the U.S. is picking up," said Ben Westmore, energy analyst with National Australia Bank in Melbourne. "Until we see that, investors won't be assured that the recovery is imminent."

Investors were cheered earlier this week when the Energy Information Administration said crude in storage fell by 8.4 million barrels last week, suggesting demand could be improving.

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve said factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region jumped back into positive territory in August, reaching its highest level since November 2007.

Meanwhile, the Conference Board's economic forecasting gauge, the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, rose for the fourth straight month during July.

"The data is quite volatile," Westmore said. "If we see more inventory draws, oil could break through the $75 a barrel mark."

In other Nymex trading, gasoline for September delivery was steady at $1.98 a gallon and heating oil fell 0.62 cent to $1.88. Natural gas for September delivery fell 1.2 cents to $2.93 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, Brent prices fell 56 cents to $72.77 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.