WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Oil futures nearest delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange and Brent crude on the Intercontinental Exchange erased earlier losses to settle Thursday's session higher. Investors weighed a potential $2 trillion stimulus package expected to be announced later this evening by President-elect Joe Biden against weaker-than-expected jobs data and political turmoil in Washington, D.C.
Further spurring gains in the oil complex, the U.S. dollar declined in afternoon index trade, erasing earlier strength to end down at 90.215 against a basket of foreign currencies. NYMEX West Texas Intermediate futures for February delivery advanced 66 cents to settle at an 11-month spot high $53.57 barrel (bbl) and March Brent contract added 36 cents for a $56.42 bbl settlement. NYMEX February ULSD futures advanced 2.05 cents to $1.6194 gallon with the front-month RBOB futures edging 0.51 cents higher to $1.5539 gallon.
Markets are laser-focused on this evening's speech by Biden scheduled for 7:15 p.m. EST where he's expected to unveil an ambitious stimulus plan that is likely to be split into two parts. The first part is likely to include $2,000 in direct payments to individuals, aid to state and local governments and a boost to unemployment benefits. The second bill would reportedly entail an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour -- a proposal that could arguably cap a recovery in the labor market.
Jobless claims soured to near one million during the week ended Jan. 8 -- the highest weekly rate of first-time filers since late March, according to the data released Thursday morning by the Labor Department. Continued claims in state programs climbed to above five million, up 199,000 to 5.27 million in the week ended Jan. 2. Both initial and continuing claims exceeded the market's highest expectations.
The worse-than-expected figures offer further evidence the U.S. economy struggles to contain the fallout from the pandemic as the ongoing surge in new infections shutters businesses across the country. As of Jan. 13, more than 22 million cases have been confirmed in the United States, according to data from John Hopkins University, with the death toll reaching 350,000. The United States has counted more than 200,000 cases a day for most of December and January.
Internationally, China this week reintroduced strict lockdown measures in the central province of Hebei, restricting movement for over 22 million people. China -- the world's largest oil importer -- increased crude purchases last year to 10.86 million bpd, up 7% year on year, according to data from General Administration of Customs. However, last month those purchases nosedived 15% to a 27-month low 9.096 million barrels per day (bpd), possibly reflecting a shortage of state quotas or inadequate demand.
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Thursday morning upgraded its 2020 global demand projections to 90 million bpd, mainly driven by robust recovery in China and India. In 2021, global oil demand is set to rise by 5.9 million bpd to 95.9 million bpd, OPEC said on Thursday, leaving its 2021 demand growth forecast unchanged from last month, while cautioning the pandemic is still skewing risk to the downside.
For the United States, "The recovery in transportation fuels, including gasoline, is additionally linked to developments in the labor market and gasoline retail prices. The current outlook assumes a respectable recovery in both variables," OPEC said.
In Europe, "Uncertainties remain high going forward with the main downside risks being issues related to COVID-19 containment measures and the impact of the pandemic on consumer behavior. These will also include how many countries are adapting lockdown measures, and for how long," OPEC said.
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