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Crude inches lower after range-bound session

Strengthened US dollar adds upside headwinds

Brent-WTI spread holds near two-week high

New York — Crude futures were slightly lower at market settle Thursday after a range-bound session as markets looked for signs of next direction following steep losses the session prior.

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ICE March Brent was down 7 cents at $65.37/b and NYMEX February WTI was 5 cents lower at $59.56/b at settle.

"Oil prices are quickly giving up all the gains that followed the OPEC+ surprise cuts, phase-one trade deal momentum for improved demand and US-Iran tensions," OANDA senior market analyst Edward Moya said in an analyst note. "A robust nonfarm payroll report could trigger a slightly stronger dollar that could provide some additional pressure for commodities, but we should still see oil prices stabilize in short-term."

The one-year NYMEX WTI forward spread narrowed to $4.02/b Thursday, the weakest backwardation since mid-December.

US nonfarm payroll and unemployment data is scheduled for release by the US Labor Department ahead of the US open on Friday.

ICE US Dollar Index futures were up around 0.2 point in mid-afternoon trading and on pace to settle above 97 for the first time since December 26. US dollar strength is typically inversely correlated with commodity prices.

NYMEX February ULSD settled down 81 points at $1.9501/gal and February RBOB was 39 points lower at $1.6527/gal.

Options traders appear to be bracing for the downside. Implied volatility for second-month NYMEX WTI has jumped to nearly 28% this week, up from below 20% in mid-December, according to data provider Enverus. Implied volatility in crude often spikes when downside risks mount.

Open interest for the bearish $57 February put has risen steadily since December on modest, but regular volume. But volume at that strike spiked to around 8,000 contracts each day for the past two trading days.

Open interest for the bullish $65 February call had also been on the rise as US/Iran tensions mounted, but volume over the past few days has gone hand in hand with a decline in open interest.

US President Donald Trump in a White House speech appeared to soften his stance toward Tehran Wednesday, lessening the risk of an immediate US response to Tuesday night Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq. That, coupled with an unexpected build in US crude supply last week reported by US Energy Information Administration Wednesday, has been especially bearish for prompt-dated WTI futures. Front-month WTI settled Thursday more than 5.8% below its Monday close. In contrast, front-month Brent, which is typically considered to be more exposed to geopolitical risk, was down just 5.1% over the same period.

The relative strength in Brent was highlighted by a widened Brent-WTI spread that has opened to more than $5.80/b this week from below $5/b in early January.