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Oil doubters mount comeback as rally stalls on global worries

New York

HEDGE funds reversed course on oil just in time, plowing back into bearish bets as crude skidded into a wall of economic worries.

In a shift from four weeks of retreat, short-sellers boosted by 28 per cent their wagers that Brent prices would fall in the week ended Feb 5, according to data released Friday. That overshadowed the belief in rising prices, as investors weighed an Opec supply cut against signs of weakening demand growth.

Brent's rally has fizzled this month after the global benchmark gained 15 per cent in January. Record US shale drilling is threatening to offset the output cuts by Saudi Arabia, Russia and other top exporters. The economic picture also grew dimmer last week, with American and Chinese negotiators looking far apart on trade talks and disappointing data from Germany to Australia to the US.

"It seems like the momentum we had has kind of trickled away," said Cailin Birch, a global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. "The market is primed to react to bad news right now." Brent slipped 1 per cent last week, losing ground for the second time in three weeks. In the US, West Texas Intermediate fell even further, ending the week down almost 5 per cent after it had recorded its biggest January gains on record.

"The sentiment was pretty bullish coming off some pretty low oil prices at the end of last year," said Brian Kessens, who manages US$16 billion in energy investments for Kansas-based money manager Tortoise. "And I think expectations are just becoming a little more realistic." Net-longs - the difference between wagers on a Brent increase and bets on a decline - nudged up by less than 1 per cent to 233,995 options and futures contracts, according to Friday's report from the ICE Futures Europe exchange.

Short-selling bets climbed by the most since late October, while longs, predicting higher prices, rose by 5.2 per cent. The total number of wagers rose 8.5 per cent, the first increase in eight weeks.

A resolution to the US-China trade war could break the market out of its doldrums, said Ms Birch. So could continued political turmoil in Opec member Venezuela, added Mr Kessens, or reductions in American output. That's likely on the way, he said, given some drillers have promised to lower spending in recent earnings reports.

Among his clients, "we're not seeing any panic from the bulls", Mr Kessens said. "They think the current levels are still more constructive than where we were. We think we're going to move higher." Up-to-date information on WTI positioning won't be available until next month, as the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission is still releasing weeks-old data following the government shutdown. BLOOMBERG