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Oil fluctuates on Italy election, US economic data

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- The price of oil bounced around Tuesday as investors weighed the implications of political uncertainty in Italy, a rash of U.S. economic indicators and the latest assessment of the economy from the head of the Federal Reserve.

Benchmark crude for April delivery was down 50 cents at $92.61 a barrel in morning trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The price dropped below $92 earlier, and also briefly rallied into positive territory.

Stock and commodities markets were initially rattled by the possibility of political paralysis in Italy after nearly complete results in crucial national elections showed no clear front-runner. Investors worried that the uncertainty could intensify Europe's debt crisis.

"It seems that Italy is repeating the same story as Greece, bringing renewed uncertainty about European political and economic conditions and further volatility and nervous trading across the markets," said a report from Sucden Financial Research in London.

Oil cut into the early losses after U.S. economic data showed further improvement in sales of new homes and housing prices, as well as an increase in consumer confidence. U.S. stock indexes rose, looking to reverse a sharp decline on Monday.

The focus now turns to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who delivered the central bank's semiannual report on the economy to Congress. In his opening remarks, Bernanke signaled that the Fed's efforts to keep borrowing costs low will continue.

Investors will also be monitoring fresh information on U.S. stockpiles of crude oil. Data for the week ending Feb. 22 are expected to show a build of 2.6 million barrels in crude oil stocks, according to a survey of analysts by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

In London, Brent crude was down $1.35 at $113.09 on the ICE futures exchange.

In other energy futures trading on Nymex:

— Wholesale gasoline fell6 cents at $3.20 a gallon.

— Heating oil dropped 5 cents to $3.04 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 1 cent to $3.40 per 1,000 cubic feet.


Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.