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OPEC sends mixed signals on production cuts in advance of Thursday's meeting

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ To cut or not to cut? The mixed signals being sent by OPEC nations on the need for reducing output are keeping traders guessing ahead of the organization's meeting Thursday.

Prices have risen from recent lows to above $60 a barrel, removing some of the urgency behind calls from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut production further when oil ministers meet in Nigeria.

At the same time, ministers are keeping a wary eye on inventories _ the amount of crude in stock in the United States and other major oil customers. The most recent complete figures, from the end of September, showed supplies in the major industrialized nations at 2.76 billion barrels. That represents 53 days of demand and is up from the 2.64 billion barrels being held at the same time last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Those inventory levels _ the highest in eight years _ could speak for further cutbacks on the heels of OPEC's decision last month to reduce output by 1.2 million barrels a day. Oil minister Ali Naimi of Saudi Arabia, the OPEC powerhouse, said last week that 100 million barrels must be whittled from stockpiles in industrialized nations.

``The sense is that supply is still higher than demand, so another cut may be necessary,'' said Eshan Ul-Haq, chief analyst at Vienna's PVM Oil Associates, when asked what OPEC would likely decide at the meeting in Abuja.

Still, newer statistics indicate that the September inventory figures may not be revealing the true state of oil-market affairs.

The latest weekly snapshot from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, released last week, showed crude stocks in the world's largest petroleum consumer plummeted by 53.5 million barrels since the end of September. That nearly negated a record buildup of 56.7 million barrels accrued in the second quarter of the year.

That leaves a mixed picture at least for the United States _ crude stocks falling to their lowest level since June but remaining at a 12-year high for this time of year. Even considering that oil derivative inventories _ gasoline, diesel and heating oil _ have been falling, total oil and derivative stocks are at their highest level since 1998.

That complex picture _ and prices above the red line of $60 _ could lead the ministers to opt for something less than an immediate cut but more than maintaining the status quo.

OPEC acting Secretary-General Mohammed Barkindo was hedging his bets Monday, saying it was too early to say whether the group will announce another cut to production.

``Its very premature to talk about cutting,'' he told Dow Jones Newswires. ``We need to look at more numbers and that's what we'll be doing in the next few days.

``We need to look at inventories, they've been very high, and production data.''

Frederic Lasserre, chief analyst at SG Securities in Paris, said ministers could decide in Abuja to call for a special meeting in January or February that would ``implement a cut in February or March or April'' _ looking ahead to the second quarter when demand traditionally falls after the high-consumption winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

According to Oil Movements, which tracks tanker shipments, OPEC has implemented only two-thirds of its planned 1.2 million barrel cutback. Lasserre said ``weak compliance'' with the November target also reduces the likelihood of a further immediate reduction.

``It would be dangerous to have another cut without implementing the first cut properly,'' he said, suggesting that OPEC's image as an effective price and supply regulator would suffer.

In addition, he said, OPEC ``might be short of ammunition if they announce a cut already'' _ leaving their list of options limited should a further reduction become necessary in the first or second quarter of next year.

Still, all options remain open.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said last week his country sees $60 as an acceptable benchmark price _ and recent prices have surpassed that mark.

But not by a large margin. Oil was trading below $62 a barrel at midday Monday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. A sudden and major downward turn would likely increase backing for traditional OPEC price hawks like Iran and Venezuela, which would like to see prices closer to $70.

In addition, $60 now is not $60 a year ago _ at least from the point of view of OPEC nations which have seen their buying power in Europe erode by the growing strength of the euro. That, says Ul-Haq, could also go into the mix of factors prompting decisions at Abuja.

``Many OPEC members are complaining, because they have to buy the bulk of their consumer goods in Europe,'' he said. ``Prices are still not high enough for them.''
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