Oil prices were little changed Thursday as investors kept their powder dry ahead of U.S. data expected to offer further clues on the outlook for interest rates.

Brent crude futures for April were down 36 cents at $83.32 a barrel by 1157 GMT. The April contract expires on Thursday and the more active May contract was down 39 cents at $81.76. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures lost 26 cents to $78.28.

Brent has hovered comfortably above the $80 mark for three weeks, with the Middle East conflict having only a modest impact on crude flows.

A Reuters survery of 40 economists and analysts on Thursday forecast an average price of $81.13 a barrel for the front-month contract this year.

A variety of economic data is due on Thursday, but centre stage belongs to the Federal Reserve's preferred inflation gauge, the U.S. personal consumption expenditures (PCE) index.

Reports on consumer and producer prices earlier in February signaled sticky inflation and a guarded approach from Fed policymakers, which prompted investors to push back expectations of rate cuts to June from March.

High interest rates have been use in many major Western economies to curb inflation, potentially reducing economic growth and oil demand.

"Faced with a flurry of data culminating in the PCE number, global stock markets have behaved in benign fashion for most of the week," said John Evans of oil broker PVM.

If the PCE readings - as well as the core figures, which exclude volatile food and energy prices - confound expectations, he added, "there will be fireworks from this week’s thus far fettered investment tourists".

Meanwhile, U.S. crude inventories have risen for a fifth consecutive week, increasing by 4.2 million barrels, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday. Inventories had been expected to rise by only 2.7 million barrels..

An extension to voluntary oil output cuts from the OPEC+ producer group is also on the cards.

"With the demand outlook remaining uncertain, we think OPEC will extend the current supply agreement to the end of the second quarter," ANZ analysts said in a note.

The Middle East conflict shows no signs of abating, meanwhile, with both Israel and Hamas playing down prospects for a truce in their war in Gaza. Qatari mediators have said the most contentious issues remain unresolved.

(Reporting by Natalie Grover in London, Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo and Jeslyn Lerh in Singapore Editing by David Goodman)