Those searching for signs that spring has sprung needed to look no further than the physical natural gas market on Monday as the prices for gas delivered Tuesday tumbled in nearly every region of the country, led by the Northeast.
Ever the contrarian when it comes to market movements, thanks to ample production and lack of takeaway capacity, Marcellus Shale region pricing points were the only ones in the black on Monday, with most indexes in the constrained area adding anywhere from a couple of pennies to more than a dime.
The largest movers could be found in the Northeast, as the official start to spring brought the beginning of winter's thaw to the region. Algonquin Citygate, which spiked $2.98 on Friday for weekend and Monday delivery, fell $2.79 on Monday for Tuesday delivery to average $7.70. Likewise, Tennessee Zone 6 200 Line added $3.55 on Friday, but came off $3.16 to average $7.01 on Monday.
Off the pricing points most closely linked to the Marcellus and Utica basins, the largest gainers were Dominion North, which added 14 cents to average $1.82 and Tennessee Zone 4 313 Pool, which tacked on 5 cents to average $1.77. Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus increased 15 cents to $1.55.
Outside of the East, individual points were all lower, taking a cut anywhere from a nickel to around 15 cents as temperatures moderated.
In the natural gas futures arena, traders and analysts alike were still wrangling with the problem of an oversupplied market and the reality that the inventory-sapping winter was drawing to a close. The message came into more focus last Thursday when the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that a meager 45 Bcf was removed from underground storage for the week ending March 13. Last year saw a 69 Bcf withdrawal for the week. On Monday April natural gas futures traded a slim $2.691 to $2.756 range before closing out the regular session at $2.733, down 5.3 cents from Friday's close.
In noting that natural gas futures were lower on Monday, forecasters with NatGasWeather.com said milder temperature conditions will spread across the eastern United States for the next several days as high pressure briefly builds in.
"It will also be quite warm over Texas, Florida, and the Southwest with highs reaching the 80s and lower 90s, resulting in early season demand for light cooling. However, a period of colder conditions is expected to arrive late Thursday into Friday over the eastern half of the U.S. as a strong Canadian weather system pushes deep into the southern U.S., with cooling into Texas as well."
As a result, sub-freezing temperatures are expected to occur Saturday morning deep into the Gulf Coast states, helping drive stronger than normal national heating demand for a several day period, NatGasWeather stated, adding that additional reinforcing cool blasts would follow through early next week, especially for the Great Lakes and Northeast.
Andrea Paltrinieri, who analyzes natural gas markets for NatGasWeather, said it will be difficult for the bulls to get traction in the near term. "As we mentioned after the storage report, one short-term driver for the market could be represented by the production recovery from freeze offs," Paltrinieri said. "During the past weekend we witnessed an increase in production, overcoming 73 Bcf/d due to full recovery in the Northeast after the recent cold snaps. This framework is actually bearish for the medium-term picture for the natgas market, considering that we need to get a lot of demand to use all that supply."
Paltrinieri added that weather models from Friday didn't trend any colder for Thursday's EIA storage report, with most analysts estimates predicting the first injection of the season (around 10-20 Bcf). "With those factors in place, it's difficult to have a bullish stance on natty prices before storage number -- barring any significant changes toward frigid/hot weather data or forecasts."
Citi Futures Perspective's Tim Evans said that while Monday's short-term temperature forecast looks warmer than last Friday's, which subtracts some late heating demand from the market balance, the price weakness seems more predicated upon the seasonal pattern, with tapering storage withdrawals setting the stage for the swing to net injections.
"Based on recent storage flows and the current weather outlook, we think the first net injection will arrive for the week ending April 10," Evans said. "The decline in heating demand may seem like a compelling factor, and could conceivably be used to justify a break to new lows as was the case in 2012, but we also note that the simple arrival of spring should not rate as a surprise and that storage comparisons still look supportive. Storage could still be as much as 226 Bcf below the five-year average as of April 12, according to our model."
Teri Viswanath, who directs natural gas strategy for BNP Paribas, is a little more bearish than Evans. In a Thursday research note, she said the natural gas market would have to take corrective action to get the current supply/demand situation back into balance. "Despite the strong finish to the winter heating season, U.S. storage facilities might not be sufficiently drained to accommodate surplus production over the summer," she said. "In order to operate within physical system constraints and not exceed storage capacity limits, we expect that the industry will need to make significant adjustments to bring the market back into equilibrium. This much needed accommodation, however, will probably not be achieved by a reduction in supply. Rather, we now expect that more significant price-induced demand growth will be required to offset supply.
Because she believes that significant price-induced demand growth will now be required to rebalance the market, Viswanath said natural gas prices may remain discounted for most of the year. "Accordingly, we are lowering our 2015 price forecast to $3.00 from $3.20/MMBtu to reflect a market in surplus. The hard-won balancing we see occurring this year paves the way for structural demand recovery in 2016, with delivered prices still expected to average $4.00/MMBtu.”