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Oil settles lower as U.S. business activity cools, concerns over Middle East ease

FILE PHOTO: Oil pump jacks at Vaca Muerta in Argentina

By Nicole Jao

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Oil prices fell on Wednesday as worries over conflict in the Middle East eased and business activity in the United States slowed, although a fall in U.S. crude oil inventories put a floor on those losses.

Brent crude futures fell 40 cents, or 0.45%, to settle at $88.02 a barrel, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures slipped 55 cents, or 0.66%, to $82.81.

That reversed some of Brent's gains earlier in the week, buoyed by a weaker U.S. dollar. [USD/]

"It appears the fundamentals that we trade with are leaning towards a little settling down in the Middle East," said Tim Snyder, economist at Matador Economics.

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Perceived de-escalation between Iran and Israel could remove another $5-10 a barrel in coming months, Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note. These analysts estimated a $90 per barrel ceiling on Brent.

U.S. crude stockpiles fell by 6.4 million barrels to 453.6 million barrels in the week ended April 19, the EIA said, compared with analysts' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 825,000-barrel rise.[EIA/s]

The large crude draw was the result of very high crude exports, said UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo. But it could be a one-off, he said, as preliminary tanker tracking data this week shows lower exports.

U.S. business activity cooled in April to a four-month low, with S&P Global saying on Tuesday that its flash Composite PMI Output Index, which tracks the manufacturing and services sectors, fell to 50.9 this month from 52.1 in March.

The U.S. central bank is expected to start lowering rates this year, which could bolster economic growth and, in turn, stimulate demand for oil.

Elsewhere, Germany's business morale improved more than expected in April, according to a survey on Wednesday, boosting hopes that the worst may be over for Europe's biggest economy.

Even as concerns about geopolitical tension in the Middle East eased, the Israel-Hamas conflict continues to rage with some of the heaviest shelling in weeks on Tuesday. Sources on Wednesday said Israel was preparing to evacuate Rafah ahead of a promised assault on the city.

(Reporting by Nicole Jao in New York, Robert Harvey in London, Deep Vakil in Bengaluru, Katya Golubkova in Tokyo and Trixie Yap in Singapore; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Alexandra Hudson, Andrea Ricci, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Peter Graff)