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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dow Ends Down 167, Nasdaq Ends Down 36;Oil Prices Settle Near $77 a Barrel

Oil Prices Settle at Record Near $77 a Barrel As Violence in Middle East Escalates;

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Oil prices settled at a record above $76 a barrel Thursday in a market agitated by escalating violence in the Middle East and the threat of supply disruptions there and beyond.

The latest surge in oil shook stock-market investors' confidence, though economists said most U.S. consumers and businesses appear to be absorbing higher energy costs surprisingly well.

U.S. gasoline demand continues to rise in spite of near $3-a-gallon pump prices, core inflation remains relatively low and the U.S. economy is forecast to grow by roughly 3 percent in the second half of the year.

"Two years ago I might have said that $70 or $75 a barrel would be some kind of a tipping point. Now I'm not so sure anymore," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight, a private forecasting firm.

Still, Behravesh said lower-income Americans are suffering disproportionately from higher energy costs and "I could certainly make a policy case for helping them out on a temporary basis."

Light sweet crude for August delivery shot up as high as $76.85 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange before settling at $76.70. The rally came as fighting between Israel and Lebanon intensified, explosions hit Nigerian oil installations and a diplomatic standoff dragged on between the West and Iran over its nuclear program.

The previous Nymex settlement record of $75.19 was set July 5. The previous intraday record of $75.78 was posted two days later.

Adjusted for inflation, oil prices would need to rise to about $90 a barrel to exceed the highs set a quarter century ago when supplies tightened in the aftermath of a revolution in Iran and a war between Iraq and Iran.

Today oil prices are being pushed higher by rising global demand and worries that the world's limited supply cushion would not be adequate to offset a lengthy disruption to output in major producing countries, such as Iran or Nigeria. There are also concerns about the risks hurricanes pose to U.S. production.

The latest fear being priced into the market is that the conflict between Israel and Lebanon could spill over into other corners of the Middle East, the region that produces nearly a third the world's oil and contains almost two-thirds of its untapped reserves.

Israel intensified its attacks against Lebanon on Thursday, imposing a naval blockade, twice hitting Beirut's airport and blasting two Lebanese army air bases near Syria. Hezbollah fired more than 100 rockets into Israel, which said one also struck the port city of Haifa. More than 51 people have died in two days of violence following the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants, who have financial links to Syria and Iran.


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