Oil falls as Europe economy slumps

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BANGKOK (AP) — Oil prices fell below $97 Friday, a day after data from Europe showed both big and small economies in the region mired in an economic slowdown.

Benchmark oil for March delivery was down 36 cents to $96.95 per barrel at late afternoon Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 30 cents to finish at $97.31 per barrel on the Nymex on Thursday.

Output in Europe's biggest economy, Germany, contracted by more than anticipated in the last three months of 2012 as the recession deepened across the 17 European Union countries that use the euro. France, Europe's second-biggest economy, also saw output drop.

Caroline Bain, commodities analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the combined economy of the euro nations is likely to contract again this year and oil consumption in the region will also fall. However, oil prices could move higher this year as a result of modest growth in China and an upswing in U.S. oil consumption after two years of contraction, Bain said.

"Although there are still concerns about the dampening impact of fiscal policy in the US, it is our view that steadily improving labor market and housing data will lead to higher US consumer confidence which is positive for oil consumption," Bain said in a written commentary.

Brent crude, which is used to price oil that many U.S. refineries buy to make gasoline, fell 48 cents to $117.52 per barrel in London.

In other energy futures trading on the Nymex:

— Heating oil fell 0.7 cent to $3.204 a gallon.

— Wholesale gasoline rose 0.8 cent to $3.325 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 1.3 cent to $3.15 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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