| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Oil collapsed into free-fall on Thursday, diving as much as 10 percent and sending U.S. crude back under $100 a barrel as investors staged a nearly unprecedented stampede for the exits.
Weak economic data from Europe and the United States fed concerns that have battered commodities all week. German industrial orders fell unexpectedly in March while U.S. weekly jobless claims hit eight-month highs, sparking a fourth day of profit taking in early trade.
But the onslaught of selling went far beyond any single cause. Brent crude plunged more than $12 at one point -- exceeding the sell-off that followed Lehman Brothers' collapse. U.S. crude broke below $100 for the first time since March as technical triggers set off a cascade of sell-stops.
Shell-shocked traders said the decline that has more than halved this year's oil price gains might not be over yet, but few were ready to call an end to the long bull run.
"The longer-term bull cycle is still in place, but this correction may have a life span of several months, as weaker economic data is fueling this correction to a large part," said Sterling Smith, senior analyst for Country Hedging Inc in Minnesota.
World stocks fell and the 19-commodity Reuters-Jefferies CRB index dropped more than 4.9 percent, heading for its biggest weekly decline since December 2008.
Additional pressure came from news OPEC was considering raising formal output limits when it meets in June to convince oil markets it wants to bring prices down and reverse the impact of fuel inflation on economic growth.
Brent crude futures for June settled down $10.39 at $110.80 a barrel, the second biggest drop on record, in the fourth straight day of losses that sent prices breaking below the 50-day moving average. Later it fell as low as $109.02 a barrel in post-settlement trade.
U.S. crude settled down $9.44 at $99.80 a barrel, before hitting $98.25 a barrel in post-settlement trade, marking the second-biggest one day loss in dollar terms on record.