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LONDON (Reuters) - Higher demand as the world economy improves will push U.S. crude oil to average more than $73 a barrel in 2010, a Reuters poll showed on Tuesday, as analysts raised their consensus forecast for the fifth straight month.
The poll of more than 30 analysts predicted an average 2009 U.S. oil price of $59.28, up from $58.23 in the last poll. Eleven analysts increased their forecasts for 2010, while just one estimated lower.
U.S. light crude was trading around $74 on Tuesday.
Analysts in the poll said U.S. crude would average $68.22 in the fourth quarter of 2009, up from $67.08 in the last poll, as hopes for the strength of economic improvement and improved fuel demand were expected to spur a sustained oil price rally.
"Oil prices remain well supported in the low $70s," said Costanza Jacazio at Barclays Capital.
"Oil stocks are at very high levels but improving demand amid continued supply tightness should accelerate the pace of erosion of the inventory overhang, lending support to prices," Jacazio said.
Oil prices in 2009 have run a parallel course with global stock market rallies and currency valuations, as risk appetite worked its way back into market activity following a credit crunch, financial crisis and eventual widespread recession.
But the upward move in prices may not be straightforward.
"In the short term, I don't expect Chinese imports to keep up with the pace of the last few months, as we saw record imports in July. Therefore I think demand will weaken a bit," said Frank Schallenberger, head of commodity research at Landesbank.
Landesbank forecast U.S. crude to average $58 in 2009, $80 in 2010 and $85 in 2011.
In July China's implied oil demand rose 3.5 percent from a year earlier, its fourth consecutive monthly rise, and passenger car sales jumped 70.54 percent from the same month last year, according to official Chinese data.
Regional industry analysts attributed the impressive July figures in large part to Beijing's stimulus measures of halving sales tax on small cars and doling out subsidies for buyers in rural areas to pump up automobile demand.
Some analysts also predicted a blunting of recent price jumps in crude oil as tighter U.S. regulation of energy markets will push speculators out of the market.
Commerzbank lowered its average 2010 oil price forecast to $55 a barrel from $75 a barrel, arguing that speculative investment played a large role in driving energy prices higher.
"The significant rise in the oil price in the first half of the year is due in large part to a recovery in investment by financial investors," analyst Eugen Weinberg at Commerzbank wrote in their Commodities Spotlight Energy newsletter.
"If their influence is reduced by the (Commodity Futures Trading Commission's) actions and sanity prevails, the oil price will fall."
The CFTC is widely expected to introduce stricter position limits for non-physical investors in commodities before the end of 2009.
Supply curbs by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries were expected to remain in effect, helping to tighten markets and push prices to above $147 a barrel in July 2008.
"Oil demand will rise again, with worldwide economic growth of around 3 percent next year and if OPEC keeps up their policy of relatively tight supply," Schallenberger of Landesbank said.