--US crude plunges below $100 a barrel to lowest since Feb
--Brent crude set for weakest finish since Feb.
--Weak U.S. jobs data is catalyst, but bearish signs have been mounting
By Dan Strumpf and Ben Lefebvre
Oil futures tumbled to their lowest level in three months Friday, blowing through $100 a barrel and continuing on lower, in a rout spurred by a weaker-than-expected reading on U.S. employment in April.
The weak jobs data has prompted fresh worries about global oil demand, and comes on the heels of several recent reports that suggest an eroding outlook for the global economy.
"The whole global economy has been starting to show some cracks," said Tom Bentz, director at BNP Paribas Prime Brokerage in New York. "It's not just today's report--it's a general lack of confidence that's growing."
Light, sweet crude for June delivery settled $4.05, or 4%, lower at $98.49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest finish for the benchmark since Feb. 7. The slide marks the biggest one-day drop for the contract since December.
Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange recently fell $2.87, or 2.5%, to $113.21 a barrel, on track for its weakest finish since Feb. 2.
Crude futures fell steadily throughout the day after the Labor Department said U.S. nonfarm payrolls rose by 115,000 in April, less than the gain of 168,000 expected by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires. The unemployment rate fell a tenth of percentage point to 8.1%.
Employment data in the U.S., the world's biggest oil consumer, is a closely watched indicator of fuel and oil demand. Weak employment data usually correlates with lackluster demand as fewer motorists travel to work or take vacations.
The report, however, was just one additional piece of data in recent weeks that has weakened the case for oil prices above $100 a barrel, and traders took the opportunity to cash out bets on higher prices.
"If anyone had an inkling of bearish sentiment, today's the day to pull out fast," said Jason Schenker, energy analyst at Prestige Economics.
Nymex crude futures have fallen 10.3% since hitting a recent settlement high of $109.77 a barrel in late February. Brent crude, the European benchmark, is also down more than 10% off its high of more than $126.
Earlier this week, Spain disclosed that it is officially in a recession, while a survey of economic activity in the euro-zone in April found a faster contraction than previously thought.
Oil supply, meanwhile, is looking increasingly ample. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has hiked production to 10 million barrels a day in recent months. And oil inventories in the U.S. continue to swell, rising 10% over the last 10 weeks amid weak demand for crude.
"There's plenty of supply out there, and now you're introducing more and more demand concerns," says Kyle Cooper, managing partner at IAF Energy Advisors. "$100 a barrel is not cheap--maybe $95 is more realistic."
Front-month June reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 7.42 cents, or 2.4%, lower at $2.9758 gallon, its lowest settlement since Feb. 10.
June heating oil settled 7.81 cents, or 2.5%, lower at $3.0088 a gallon, its weakest finish since Jan. 20.
More information on settlements and highs and lows for futures on Nymex and ICE platforms can be found by searching for the following headlines:
Nymex Light Crude Oil Close
Nymex Harbor RBOB Gasoline Close
Nymex Heating Oil Close
ICE Brent Crude Oil Close
ICE Gas Oil Close
-By Dan Strumpf, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2818; firstname.lastname@example.org
--David Bird contributed to this article.