Brent crude for March inched 4 cents higher to USD 96.62 a barrel after touching USD 95.43 on Thursday, the lowest intraday price since Jan. 11. A week ago the front month contract touched USD 99.20, the highest level since 2008.
Consumers represented by the International Energy Agency have voiced concern about the potential effect of rising crude prices on the global economic recovery, stepping up pressure on the Organization of the Petroleum Countries to raise production.
"We acknowledge the perception of a rapid move to a triple-digit price level does negatively impact sentiment and does generate more cautious inventory procurement and management, which could add to the softer tone we now expect in the near term," JP Morgan analysts led by Lawrence Eagles said.
"There is a rising risk of coming into the office one Monday morning to find OPEC has raised output dramatically," the bank said, adding, "we believe the time has come for investors to pare risk and take some profits."
Brent's premium against US benchmark crude West Texas Intermediate was at USD 6.99 at the close on Thursday, down from USD 8.24 a week ago, the widest since February 2009.
US crude stockpiles rose 2.62 million barrels in the week to Jan. 14, defying forecasts for a 400,000 barrel drawdown, data from the US Energy Information Administration showed, while gasoline and distillate stocks climbed more than expected, by 4.4 and and 1 million barrels respectively.
The first stock build in seven weeks jolted investors who had expected inventories to be down significantly due to the disruption of domestic production after the shutdown of the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
The line normally ships 12 percent of US crude output and was back in operation on Monday as producers also restarted, after a bypass repair to circumvent a leak discovered Jan. 8. It was expected to ramp up to normal rates of about 630,000 barrels per day by early next week.
China's fourth quarter gross domestic product rose above forecasts, raising worries that booming growth may lead to inflation. Investors are worried that any steps by China to slow growth may result in a hard landing for markets in 2011.