Oil, gold gain on Middle East tension

NEW YORK Tue Mar 1, 2011 5:56pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brent crude oil futures finished Tuesday at their highest level in 2-1/2 years, U.S. crude rose over 2 percent, and investors quest for safety sent gold to an all-time high, on fears political turmoil in Libya would spread to other oil producing countries.

Copper gave up three days of gains to end lower on those same fears and as rising oil prices ignited inflation concerns.

The 19-component Reuters Jeffries CRB commodity price index .CRB was up about 0.75 percent by the day's close, driven higher by the surge in oil, gold, and other commodities.

For year-to-date performance of CRB components : link.reuters.com/kew48n

Brent crude oil futures ended at the highest level in 2-1/2 years on mounting worries Libya's upheaval could spark tremors in other Middle East and North African oil producers.

U.S. crude pushed above $99 a barrel after Reuters reported that human rights activists said Saudi authorities had detained a Shi'ite cleric, fueling fears of sectarian conflict in the world's top oil exporter.

Clashes between opposition supporters and Iran's security forces in Tehran added to investor concerns of unrest and flow of oil supplies in the region.

"The Saudis had seemed to be walking the tightrope and avoiding problems, but the cleric story had people worried that it signaled problems there," said Robert Yawger, senior vice president, energy futures at MF Global in New York.

Brent crude futures for April rose $3.59 to $115.39 a barrel by 2:44 p.m. EST (1944 GMT). U.S. crude rose $2.66 to settle at $99.63 a barrel, the highest close since front-month crude ended at $100.64 on September 30, 2008.

The chaos in Libya and political turmoil in the Arab world prompted safe-haven buying that drove gold up over 1 percent to a record high of $1,432.10 an ounce. Soaring oil prices boosted bullion's inflation hedge appeal. Its previous record of $1,430.95 was set on December 7.

"What gold needed was a catalyst, and it found it in the form of tensions that are surfacing in the Middle East and rising oil prices," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist of Janney Montgomery Scott.

Copper snapped a three-day winning streak to settle lower as ongoing unrest in the Middle East and inflation concerns from rising oil prices that led investors to reduce risk.

But prices of the economically-sensitive base metal moved back into positive territory after-hours, as investors keyed off of optimistic prospects for the U.S. economy in remarks from Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke.

Further, the U.S. manufacturing sector expanded at its fastest rate in nearly seven years, as the sector continued to outpace other parts of the economy.

U.S. wheat futures slipped after a two-day rise, as rain in China's wheat belt and forecasts for much-needed moisture in the U.S. Plains soothed fears over new winter crop's outlook.

Corn and soybeans shook off early weakness and rallied into the close, with front-month corn setting a near-32-month high on a flurry of commodity fund buying.

Spillover strength from energy markets added support.

In the cocoa market, swift and sharp price fluctuations were suspected to have come from computer-generated dealings. Complaints of market distortion by traditional players prompted the ICE exchange to cancel some trades.

Benchmark May cocoa futures on ICE Futures U.S. sank $450 in 60 seconds before rebounding a whopping $349 a minute later, its most volatile day on record, a striking move given cocoa hit a 32-year high on Tuesday, due to unrest in top producer Ivory Coast.

(Reporting by Carole Vaporean; )