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Oil price tumbles again, falling $10 over 2 days

NEW YORK – Oil prices settled sharply lower for the second time in a row Wednesday, leaving crude more than $10 cheaper in just two days of frenzied trading and prompting speculation that the hard-charging market may be running out of steam.

Light, sweet crude for August delivery fell $4.14 to settle at $134.60 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after earlier sinking as low as $132. The drop follows a $6.44 sell-off Tuesday, crude’s biggest since the Gulf War.

The two-day slide of $10.58 a barrel marks a dramatic turnaround in crude prices, which as recently as Friday traded at record highs above $147 a barrel. But even with this week’s sell-off, prices remain about 80 percent above where they were a year ago and up about 40 percent from the start of the year.

Analysts are unsure whether the drop represents a long-term shift in sentiment or simply a brief correction to crude’s monthslong bull run. But the dizzying decline is prompting market veterans to ask how much support remains for such high prices.

“It’s a sign that maybe the bull market is losing strength,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc.

Perhaps just as significant as the declines was the sudden increase in volatility. Prices whipsawed by more than $10 Tuesday and $7 Wednesday ahead of the expiration of options contracts this week.

“I think anyone you talk to would have to be surprised by the magnitude of these huge price swings. This is extreme price volatility that no one can predict,” said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates. Such large up-and-down swings, he added, can indicate the market is nearing its top.

Sharply increased crude and gasoline supplies were the immediate cause of Wednesday’s decline.

The Energy Information Administration reported that U.S. crude oil supplies rose by 3 million barrels, or 1 percent, last week. That is the opposite of the 3 million barrel draw analysts surveyed by energy research firm Platts expected. Gasoline supplies also leapt unexpectedly.

“The numbers were decidedly bearish on just about all fronts,” Ritterbusch said.

Industry observers cautioned that prices could still bounce back, just as they have following large drops in recent weeks.

“I do expect this bubble to burst. Is this is it? It might be … but I’m not ready to say so yet,” analyst and trader Stephen Schork said.

A number of market participants speculated that at least some of the week’s sell-off was the result of cash-strapped banks selling energy contracts to raise money for other needs.

And widely used computers programed to sell once prices fall to certain thresholds can accelerate declines, much as an avalanche gains steam the further it slides.

“It absolutely adds a cascading effect,” Schork said.

Yet concerns are growing that high energy prices are leading to real shifts in consumer behavior that could cause demand to shrivel considerably.

The Labor Department said consumer prices shot up 1.1 percent last month, the second fastest pace in 26 years. Rising energy prices accounted for two-thirds of that increase, which was far worse than expected.

Testifying before Congress for the second day, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said central bank policymakers are facing “significant challenges” in righting the troubled U.S. economy, which is being buffeted by weak growth and inflation driven largely by rapidly rising food and energy prices.

“This is clearly a rough time,” Bernanke said. “It is clear (economic) growth has been slow and the labor market is weak.”