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By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices dropped by almost 4% on Wednesday, extending the previous session’s sharp losses, even after a report showed U.S. crude inventories fell more than expected, as recession fears grew for the world’s biggest economy.

Brent crude settled at $77.69 a barrel, losing $3.08, or 3.8%. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude settled at $74.30 a barrel, shedding $2.77, or 3.6%.

Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showing U.S. crude inventories fell last week by 5.1 million barrels to 460.9 million barrels helped to limit the price fall, far exceeding analyst forecasts of a 1.5 million drop in a Reuters poll.

    Gasoline and distillate stocks also drew down, sinking by 2.4 million barrels to 221.1 million barrels and almost 600,000 barrels to 111.5 million barrels, respectively, the EIA said.

“The complex appears more focused on a recession that may be well under way rather than some current EIA statistics that have generally been tilting bullish,” said Jim Ritterbusch of consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates.

A forecast of higher refinery activity, but lower crude exports, will continue a push and pull for weeks.

“Refinery runs are set to climb in the weeks ahead, boosting the demand side of the ledger, but countering this is the expectation of lower crude exports, as the tightening of the Brent-WTI spread weighs on buying appetite,” Matt Smith, lead oil analyst for the Americas at Kpler, said.

Oil prices have erased all their gains since the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and producer allies such as Russia, known collectively as OPEC+, announced in early April an additional output reduction until the end of the year.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said on Wednesday that OPEC+ remains an efficient tool for coordination.

Oil prices fell more than 2% on Tuesday as lingering economic concerns and expectations of further interest rate hikes that could curtail fuel demand growth countered signs of improving short-term consumption gains.

U.S. consumer confidence dropped to a nine-month low in April as worries mounted, heightening the risk of the economy falling into recession this year. New orders for key U.S.-manufactured capital goods also fell more than expected in March and shipments declined.

“This (data) will add credence to claims that the U.S. economy is edging closer to a recession,” said PVM Oil’s Stephen Brennock.

Investors also are concerned potential interest rate hikes by inflation-fighting central banks could slow economic growth and dent energy demand in the United States, Britain and the European Union.

The U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank are all expected to raise rates at their coming meetings. The Fed meets over May 2-3.

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(Additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar, Muyu Xu and Stephanie Kelly; Editing by Alexander Smith and Andrea Ricci)

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