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Oil falls to almost $124 on dour economic data

NEW YORK - Oil prices pulled back Thursday, wiping out some gains from the previous day's $4 a barrel rally, as traders bet that a cooling U.S. economy will continue to eat into U.S. demand for fuel.

At the pump, easing prices underscored Americans' waning consumption of gasoline. The average price of a gallon of regular slipped 1.7 cents to $3.909, according auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.

Light, sweet crude for September delivery fell $2.69 to settle at $124.08 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a day after the contract soared more than $4 in the biggest one-day jump in two weeks. Prices have now fallen in four of the last seven sessions and are 14 percent off their all-time trading high above $147, reached July 11.

The Commerce Department said U.S. gross domestic product rose just 1.9 percent in the second quarter despite government tax rebates aimed at jolting the economy. Economists had expected growth of 2.4 percent. The weak 1 percent GDP figure of the first three months of 2008 also was modified lower to 0.9 percent.

Meanwhile, a Labor Department report said the number of people seeking jobless benefits rose to the highest level in five years. Economists warned the weekly figures can be volatile and some dismissed them as an aberration, however.

Still, the poor readings rekindled fears of a recession, prompting energy traders to dump oil contracts on expectations that more belt-tightening lay ahead for Americans who are already skipping vacations, giving up gas-gazzling SUVs and cutting back on driving to cope with almost $4-a-gallon gasoline.

'When you order grounding of planes and people are making significant driving changes in the U.S. because the price of food and gasoline has doubled, that's very bearish (for oil prices) moving forward,' said James Cordier, president of Tampa, Fla.-based trading firms Liberty Trading Group and OptionSellers.com.

Given those circumstances, '$124 a barrel oil is still too expensive,' Cordier said, adding that he expects prices to fall to $110 in coming months.