Brent steadies below $109, econ worries hurt; Mideast tensions eyed

Wed Dec 5, 2012 10:49pm EST

* Mixed data keep markets on edge, "fiscal cliff" stays in focus

* Iran and Israel worries renew supply concerns

* Coming up: U.S. weekly jobless claims; 1330 GMT

By Ramya Venugopal

SINGAPORE, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Brent crude held below $109 per barrel on Thursday, as niggling worries about the global economy and oil demand following subdued data from the United States and Europe countered supply fears stemming from simmering Middle East tensions.

Investors also remained edgy about the so-called U.S. fiscal cliff of year-end tax hikes and spending cuts that threaten to push the world's largest economy back into recession and dent demand from the world's top oil consumer.

But latest comments from U.S. President Barack Obama that a deal to avert the fiscal cliff was possible in "about a week" if Republicans compromise on taxes held out some hope, supporting prices of riskier assets like oil and equities.

Front month Brent futures slid 1 cent to $108.80 per barrel at 0343 GMT, after dropping for the last three sessions. U.S. crude shed 15 cents to $87.73 per barrel, but losses were limited by inventory data that showed gasoline stocks rose by the biggest weekly margin in over 11 years.

"Overall, the markets are weak with the global economic concerns and will be trapped in a range until the U.S. 'fiscal cliff' issue is behind us," said Tony Nunan, an oil risk manager with Mitsubishi Corp in Tokyo.

Worries on the global economy moved back into focus after a mixed batch of numbers failed to reassure investors.

Ahead of key U.S. monthly nonfarm payrolls due on Friday, private payrolls processor ADP reported private-sector employers added 118,000 jobs in November, fewer than expected as Superstorm Sandy took a toll on hiring, though activity in the service sector continued to expand.

Across the Atlantic, data showed euro zone shoppers cut back on spending by the biggest margin in six months in October. Although business surveys showed that the region's downturn eased slightly in November, there are few signs it could emerge from recession any time soon.

Markets are now eyeing a European Central Bank policy meeting later in the day for clues on future policy path.

"The tone is bearish, but markets are supported by a slew of geopolitical issues and the biggest one is Iran," Nunan said referring to the West's standoff with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, a 20-month conflict in Syria, political unrest in Egypt and tensions in Israel.

"Iran will be the next issue that Obama will have to address after the fiscal cliff, so though it's on the back burner now, I expect it to come to the forefront early next year," he added.

Iran said it has obtained data from a U.S. intelligence drone that shows it was spying on the country's military sites and oil terminals. Washington said there was no evidence to support the assertion.

The focus may also switch to Israel, which moved ahead with plans to build settler homes in one of the most sensitive areas of the West Bank, triggering protests from the European Union.

U.S. concerns of "desperate" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against rebels and a political rebellion against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi added to concerns that supplies from the region will be disrupted. (Editing by Himani Sarkar)