On rollercoaster builders:Worries Over Oil And Interest Rates Send Markets On Rollercoaster Ride
Global financial markets, reeling from the fallout from the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, were dealt a further blow late yesterday as oil prices briefly hit an all-time high of just under $79 a barrel.
The record oil prices combined with rising food prices made dealers nervous that central banks around the world might raise interest rates further to prevent inflation running out of control. That would add to the problems engulfing credit markets, analysts warned.
News that US refineries sharply reduced stocks of crude last week as they churned out gasoline to supply holidaying Americans was sufficient to push the price of US light crude futures up to $78.77 a barrel, breaking the previous record of $78.40 set last summer. In inflation-adjusted terms, oil prices are almost back to the level in 1980 following the Iranian revolution.
Brent crude did not immediately follow the US lead, but the $8 a barrel rise in world prices over the past month could tip the average price at the pump in Britain above £1 a liter. Oil prices have been pushed up in recent weeks by an influx of money from hedge and other funds, geopolitical tensions and a reluctance by producer cartel Opec to raise production.
US oil prices had been held back earlier in the year by problems at US refineries which meant crude processing fell back. The US government yesterday reported that throughput had risen to its highest for 11 months, meaning the US, which consumes about a quarter of the world's 85m barrels a day of output, could soon be importing more oil again.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs warned recently that rising demand for and short supply of crude could push oil prices to as high as $95 a barrel this year.
The rise in oil prices comes as the Bank of England holds its monthly interest rate meeting with its decision to be announced at noon today. Most analysts expect the monetary policy committee to hold fire this month after the five quarter-point rises of the past year, leaving the cost of borrowing at its six-year high of 5.75%.
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"Unless there is serious contagion from the credit and equity markets to the real economy, the inflationary risks inherent in the PMI survey are likely to have a significant influence on policymakers," said Ross Walker, economist at Royal Bank of Scotland.
Jitters continued yesterday. The FTSE 100 fell 109 points to 6250. It had dropped 170 points at one stage following the lead from Wall Street the night before after a major lender, American Home Mortgage Investment Corp, admitted it had run out of money and gone into liquidation.
The news compounded fears that the crisis of recent months in the "sub-prime" mortgage market could be spreading. That fear has affected the ability of private equity houses to raise large amounts of debt to fund highly leverage takeovers.
On Wall Street, the markets were volatile in early trading as it emerged that investment bank Bear Stearns was having fresh problems with a hedge fund, but by the afternoon the Dow Jones industrial average was up 82 points at 13,294. Bear Stearns has blocked investors from pulling money out of a $900m asset-backed securities fund following losses in July.
The National Association of Realtors unexpectedly reported that home sales rose during June for the first time in four months suggesting a spark of light in an otherwise gloomy property market.
In a sign that the credit crisis is spreading globally, Macquarie Bank in Australia said two of its funds face losses of 25% on indirect exposure to sub-prime mortgages through securitised loans. That led to a 3.3% drop in the Australian stock market, the biggest since the 9/11 attacks.
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