Oil prices are set to ease next year as slower world economic growth eases demand for petroleum products and lean inventories return to normal, analysts say.

Consumers, though, cannot count on any real relief from steep fuel bills before the second quarter.

Winter weather conditions and OPEC's response to any sign of price trouble are likely to hold the key to how quickly crude comes off.

"We don't see oil falling significantly in the first quarter, unless there is a significant slowdown in the US economy," said Gordon Kwan, oil analyst at HSBC in Hong Kong.

"My personal forecast is for $USUS26 or $USUS27 Brent in the first quarter and a more meaningful drop after that."

International benchmark Brent is expected to average $USUS23.60 a barrel for the whole of next year, down more than $USUS5 from the mean so far in 2000 of $USUS28.73, according to a Reuters poll of 16 analysts and economists.

Brent has slumped $USUS8 from mid-October's $US35 peak but forecasts are little changed from a similar survey in September which projected the crude at $US23.45 for 2001.

It has averaged just over $US19 in the past 10 years, hitting a low of $US13.50 for 1998.

Ten analysts polled for the first quarter saw Brent at $US25.98, although forecasts varied widely between $US22.00 and $US28.35 reflecting uncertainties in the market.

"There are all sorts of risks between now and the end of the first quarter. Winter hasn't really started yet and stocks are still very low," said Geoff Pyne, London-based consultant to Standard Bank.

"But supply will certainly exceed demand by the end of the first quarter."

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