SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Brent crude futures inched up towards $112 per barrel on Thursday after trade numbers from China beat analysts' expectations, sparking hopes that recovery in the world's second-biggest oil consumer will drive fuel demand higher.
China's December import and export growth beat analyst forecasts, widening the country's trade balance to $31.6 billion from $19.6 billion in November, and boosting Asian shares.
"The growth in imports has been higher than expectations, which speaks highly for Chinese oil demand and global demand as a whole," said Michael McCarthy, chief market analyst at CMC Markets. "Clearly, it will be seen as a positive for oil."
Front-month Brent futures rose 11 cents per barrel to $111.87 by 0447 GMT, after shedding 18 cents in the previous session. U.S. crude rose 37 cents to $93.47 per barrel.
Trade data from the world's second-largest economy showed the value of exports grew 14.1 percent last month from a year earlier, racing past the forecasts of analysts polled by Reuters, who had expected annual growth of 4 percent, and accelerating sharply from 2.9 percent in November.
The value of imports grew 6 percent in December on the year, also handily beating market forecasts for a rise of 3 percent and quickening from zero growth in November.
China's crude oil imports for 2012 rose 6.8 percent from the previous year, data from China's General Administration of Customs showed on Thursday, in line with the 6.7 percent rate reported last month for January to November.
China December trade data: link.reuters.com/ked55s
Central bank interest rates: link.reuters.com/daz92t
Brent 24-hr technical chart: link.reuters.com/kej25t
U.S. crude 24-hr tech chart: link.reuters.com/hej25t
Gains were limited as investors were also waiting for a post-meeting news conference of the European Central Bank for cues on the recession economy's outlook.
Recent data points to some stabilisation, and ECB President Mario Draghi could strike a slightly more positive tone in the news conference after the rate decision, analysts say.
The United States will announce initial jobless claims for the week ended Jan 5, which may offer some hints on the health of the world's biggest economy, while the U.S. currency's recent strength has hurt commodities priced in dollars, such as oil.
"Oil markets are waiting for economic events later in the day," said Ryoma Furumi, a commodity sales manager at Newedge in Tokyo. "The dollar is on the rise again and U.S. employment statistics also will be in focus."
The dollar is edging towards a 2-1/2-year high against the yen on expectations that the new Japanese government will adopt more forceful monetary stimulus measures to boost growth.
Oil prices fell in the previous session after data showed that gasoline inventories in the U.S. rose to a two-year high, while crude oil production rose above 7 million barrels per day for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"The underlying picture that emerges is some conversion of crude into oil products, driven by supportive margins," BNP Paribas analysts said in a report after the data.
"More importantly, the large headline distillate stock build this week does not mask the reality that these inventories remain extremely tight, notably in the key consuming Northeast region." (Editing by Clarence Fernandez)