Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) closed flat on Thursday as a modest reading on jobless claims failed to topple upbeat expectations about Friday’s U.S. payrolls report for March as the quarter quietly draws to a close.

  • The price of oil rose to a 30-month high on Thursday as fighters loyal to Moammar Gadhafi pushed back rebels from key areas in eastern Libya. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose $2.45, more than 2 percent, to settle at $106.72 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. At one point it hit $106.83, the highest it’s been since September, 2008. Libya’s oil exports, which went mainly to Europe, are shut down. The rebels have said they plan to start shipping oil again, although how soon that could happen is unclear. Libya exported only about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, or 2% of global consumption, but energy traders worry that unrest will spread across the region to disrupt shipments from OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Meanwhile the Saudis are making good on a promise to make up for the deficit of Libyan oil. “Saudi Arabia is beginning to supply European oil companies with crude oil to help alleviate the shortfall from Libya,” said Addison Armstrong, senior director of market research at Tradition Energy. The United States Oil ETF (NYSEArca: USO) ended the day 2.26% higher.
  • Gold futures notched a nominal record high Thursday, as a weaker U.S. dollar, ongoing instability in Arab countries and Euro-zone debt concerns lured investors to the precious metal. Gold for May delivery rose $15, or 1.1%, to settle at $1,439.90 an ounce – that handily supplanted gold’s March 23 close of $1,438 an ounce. Bullion has gained 1.3% since Dec. 31. It has risen 2.1% from Feb. 28, as the month brought more turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, renewed fears of inflation and no end in sight for Europe’s debt woes. “Geopolitical concerns are taking the lead over expectations of [monetary-policy] tightening,” said Jim Steel, a precious-metals analyst with HSBC in New York. A rally for oil and concerns about Portugal’s sovereign debt also propelled the metal higher, he added. The SPDR Gold Shares ETF (NYSEArca: GLD) closed up almost 1% on Thursday.
  • Treasury prices turned down on Thursday, pushing 10-year yields up and toward their seventh monthly increase, as traders prepared for the next day’s employment report and government debt got pushed around by corporate-bond issuance. Bonds had been in positive territory during morning trading, after a government report on jobless claims showed more filings for unemployment benefits in recent months than previously reported. “Most clients will keep positioning light ahead of what’s expected to be a strong nonfarm payrolls number,” said bond strategists at Nomura Securities led by George Goncalves. Treasuries of all maturities have lost 0.14% in 2011, according to an index compiled by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That’s the worst quarterly performance since late 2009. The iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury ETF (NYSEArca: IEF) was down slightly at day end.
  • The euro climbed against the dollar Thursday as an inflation reading in Europe bolstered investor expectations that the European Central Bank will raise interest rates next week. Consumer prices in Euro countries were up 2.6% in March, the fastest increase since October 2008. Central banks raise interest rates to help counter inflation. But higher rates on government bonds increase demand for the currency linked to that country or region. The euro rose to $1.4198 late Thursday from $1.4121 late Wednesday. Debt problems in Europe are ongoing. Portugal says its budget deficit last year was larger than expected. The debt-heavy country is trying to avoid a bailout like the ones Greece and Ireland accepted last year. Such a move would be the latest sign for investors that Europe’s debt problems might not be easily resolved. The CurrencyShares Euro Trust ETF (NYSEArca: FXE) ended slightly higher on Thursday.

Read the disclaimer; Tom Lydon is a board member of Rydex|SGI.

Gregory A. Clay contributed to this article

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