(Reuters) - U.S. crude oil futures climbed to 2-1/2-year highs on Wednesday on fears that output disruptions in Libya may spread to other Middle East oil producers and hurt global economic growth, helping push Asian stocks lower.
Popular protests have toppled entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but a defiant Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s second-longest-serving leader after the Sultan of Brunei, said he would not be forced out by the deadly unrest sweeping Africa’s third-largest oil producer.
At last three oil companies have halted output in Libya, which pumps 1.6 million barrels per day, or nearly 2 percent of global supply.
U.S. crude rose as high as $96.08 a barrel, its strongest level since October 2008. By 0600 GMT, the contract had trimmed gains to trade at $95.50, up 8 cents on the day.
Brent crude rose 77 cents to $106.55 a barrel. On Monday, Brent hit a 2-1/2-year high of $108.70.
Higher energy prices could impede economic growth and hurt corporate profits even as they fuel inflationary pressures, complicating policymaking for governments and central banks.
“Even if Libya completely shuts down, there isn’t a supply issue. But (U.S. crude) could go to $100, given the potential for this contagion to spread to Saudi Arabia,” said Jonathan Barratt, managing director of Commodity Broking Services in Sydney.
Asia stocks fell as investors sold off riskier assets. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index closed down 0.8 percent, while the MSCI index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan slid 0.5 percent.
Transport companies, whose fuel bills are headed up, extended sharp losses from Tuesday, with Korean Air Line shedding 1.8 percent. Chinese carrier Air China was down 1 percent while Hong Kong’s dominant carrier Cathay Pacific fell 2.2 percent.
“The only observation an outsider sitting in Asia can make about events in the Middle East and North Africa is that the unpredictability of events and the difficulty in ascertaining the ‘end game’ mean that equity markets settling back into equilibrium is still some way off,” said Nomura analyst Sean Darby.
“The ongoing risk is if food prices were to continue to rise due to unseasonal weather and indeed if fuel prices were to climb further. Non-linear responses such as bans on exports of food by producers or curtailment of shipments of fuel due to non-payment would only exacerbate the situation on the ground and make it more difficult to return to normalcy.”
Gold, a traditional safe haven in times of trouble, was little changed around $1,398 an ounce, after a six-session rally, but the trend is still expected to be upwards.
Currencies viewed as safe havens, such as the yen and Swiss franc, have also been boosted by events in Libya.
The euro edged higher after European Central Bank officials stressed their readiness to fight inflation by raising interest rates, though it was expected to face resistance near $1.3750.
The euro rose 0.3 percent to $1.3690, having bounced back sharply from Tuesday’s intraday low of $1.3525.
Wall Street stocks on Tuesday suffered their worst day since August in what could be the start of a long-anticipated pullback after gaining more than 20 percent in the past six months. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 1.44 percent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 2.05 percent. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 2.74 percent.
U.S. stock futures rose 0.3 percent in Asian trade on Wednesday, suggesting Wall Street will recover some ground later in the day.