NEW YORK/LONDON Oil prices fell for a fourth day on Thursday, lurching again to 12-year lows as new financial market tumult in China brought a $30 per barrel handle within view.
Oil has fallen every day this year, losing nearly 10 percent in a sudden dive that makes last year's Goldman Sachs warning of sub-$30 crude seem not so outlandish after all.
"Can we go down another $3 a barrel? In percent terms, that's another 10 percent and could happen in a matter of one or two days of trading," said Greg Sharenow, executive vice-president overseeing a $16 billion commodities portfolio for the Pacific Investment Management Company in Newport Beach, California.
Global oil benchmark Brent and U.S. crude futures fell to nearly $32 a barrel on Thursday, their lowest since at least 2004, after another free fall in the Chinese stock market rattled investors already concerned by the world glut in oil.
Although oil prices later bounced off the day's lows as some bearish traders took profits on short positions, few dealers were willing to call an end to the 18-month slump.
"I wouldn't say it's a given right now that we will break below $30, but I think before the first quarter we will," said Doug King, fund manager in London for the $220 million Singapore-based Merchant Commodity Fund.
"And the reason for that is you're not stopping enough production where it needs to be shut, like in the U.S."
U.S. government data on Wednesday showed a 10.6 million-barrel surge in gasoline supplies, the biggest weekly build since 1993, rattling investors already concerned by near-record production and massive stockpiles around the world.
Brent LCOc1 settled down 48 cents at $33.75, after sliding to a low of $32.16, a level last seen in April 2004.
U.S. crude West Texas Intermediate (WTI) CLc1 finished down 70 cents at $33.27, after hitting a low of $32.10, the lowest since late 2003.
Even so, some traders think the oil rout has gone too far, too fast since the start of the year. After a frenetic fall of nearly 6 percent in European trading, crude prices retraced much of those losses in mid-morning trade in New York as those with short positions took profit from the four-day slide.
"I'll say it's oversold on a short-term basis, though I am an oil bear," said Tariq Zahir, who trades mostly longer-dated spreads in WTI for the Long Island, New York-based Tyche Capital Advisors fund.
"There's covering and also some panic buying in an attempt to support WTI at above $32."
King concurred with that. "For sure, a minus 7 percent for oil over two days on just China, and a blowup of the whole macro trade, was not something I was expecting to see in the first two days of the year."
China allowed its yuan currency to slip on Thursday, sending regional currencies and stock markets tumbling globally. Stock market trading was suspended less than half an hour after opening after sharp falls triggered a new circuit-breaking mechanism for a second time since its introduction this week.
The crash raises the risk of slowing demand from the world's No. 2 oil consumer, threatening to prolong an over year-long supply overhang.
Prices also trimmed early losses after violence in the Middle East and North Africa offered a measure of support.
A military training centre in the Libyan town of Zliten was hit by a truck bomb, causing dozens of casualties, witnesses said, while dozens of air strikes hit the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
(Editing by Marguerita Choy)