NEW YORK — Oil prices showed signs of stabilizing Friday, though overall levels were still sharply lower after an eight-day free-fall generated by a world surplus of supplies.
At the close of trading Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, contracts for March delivery of West Texas Intermediate, the top U.S. crude, stood at $19.50 a barrel, down 32 cents from Thursday's close.
But in other trading, North Sea Brent crude for delivery in February sold for $18.65 a barrel, up from Thursday's close of $18.30.
The price of heating oil was down again in New York, while gasoline prices were up slightly.
Although the market had shown signs of stabilizing in recent days, prices were still 22% less than they were on Jan. 15, when a barrel of West Texas Intermediate sold for $25.15, and 38% less than they were on Nov. 20, when a barrel cost $31.70.
In December, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said that it was giving up attempts to support prices by controlling production. The 13-member cartel said it would pursue its "fair market share" instead. Although the world was already awash in a glut of excess petroleum, supplies swelled, pushing prices downward amid OPEC warnings of a price war.
By Thursday and Friday, however, the market showed signs of stabilizing at about $19 to $20.
Futures contracts for April through August delivery of West Texas Intermediate closed higher than the March settlement price, indicating that the market is not yet betting on a steep fall beyond present levels.
On Friday, the prices ranged from $19.75 to $20.21 a barrel. On Thursday, the same futures settled between $19.88 and $20.50.
"I think $20 looks like a good ballpark number for the remainder of the year," said William Byers, an analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co.
Another analyst disagreed with the notion that prices were likely to hold at the $19-$20 level.
"I don't see it," said Andrew Lebow, an analyst with the Shearson Lehman Bros. investment firm Friday. "There's no confidence in the market," he said.