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Investors Less Enthusiastic About Higher Natural Gas Prices Over Coming Year

The energy industry is more convinced that U.S. natural gas prices will be lower over the coming year, while expectations are higher for oil prices to strengthen, a new survey by Bernstein Energy has found.

Senior analyst Bob Brackett and colleagues Jean Ann Salisbury and Benjamin Spener on Friday issued the firm's 26th quarterly Energy Investor Sentiment Survey, which was conducted June 2-10. During that time period, the gas strip averaged $2.87/Mcf, while the 12-month West Texas Intermediate (WTI) forward oil strip traded at $60.90/bbl. Since the previous survey, the WTI strip increased by 17% and Henry Hub strip prices declined by 3%, with the oil-to-gas price ratio increasing to 21.2:1 from 17.6:1 in 1Q2015.

"We believe the current price environment is on par with 2008/2009 and 1998/1999 in terms of severity," Brackett said. "In both cases, the rebound was significant." There is "more conviction" for lower price expectations for natural gas than there was three months ago.

About half of those polled earlier this month expect gas prices over the next 12 months to average $3.00-3.50/Mcf. The "price bucket of $2.50-3.00/Mcf also received a major share of votes, 27%, but down from 35% last quarter."

Only 4% of the investors said they expect gas prices of $4.00-4.50/Mcf over the next year, while just 1% see short-term gas prices above $4.50. Compared with Bernstein's first quarter survey, the weighted-average expected gas price rose slightly to $3.23/Mcf from $3.18, higher than the forward strip during the week of the survey.

In the long-term, more than one-third (36%) expect gas prices to average $3.00-4.00/Mcf, with roughly the same number (35%) projecting prices in the $3.00 to $3.50/Mcf range. About three-quarters (77%) of those said long-term, gas prices will fall below $4.00/Mcf. Only 2% are expecting $5.00 prices long-term.

"Respondents' expectations for gas prices were the most optimistic versus the forward strip since we began the survey, at 13% above," the analysts said.

Investors' enthusiasm for higher oil prices is shifting higher from the start of the year. On a weighted average basis, oil price expectations over the next 12 months rose to $65.50/bbl from $60.64 in 1Q2015. "At $65.50/bbl, investors' expectations are above the strip price of $60.90/bbl by about 8%."

About 60% of those responding said they see oil prices averaging $60-70/bbl over the next 12 months, up from 32% in 1Q2015.

"The $50-60/bbl price bucket, which had around 41% of votes in the last survey, is now reduced to only 14% of the votes. About 77% of investors expect oil prices below $70," with 60% seeing prices averaging $60-70/bbl. Only around one-fifth of the respondents expect oil prices to average $70-80/bbl over the coming year, while 2% see pricing above $80.

"Marginal cost of supply" was named the leading driver of crude prices in the latest survey, the same as in the first quarter results. "Global spare capacity" was in second place, while "emerging market growth" was third, and "global inventory" was No. 4.

As to which energy sub-sector appears to have the most upside in the next year, investors were most enthusiastic about oil exploration and production companies (E&P) at 39%. Oil services received 19% of the votes, followed by natural gas E&Ps, refiners and integrateds. Land and offshore drillers, construction and utilities together brought in only 10% of the votes.

Of the 137 responding to Bernstein's latest survey, 59% were from long-only buy side investors, 20% from hedge funds, and 18% from industry. Portfolio managers accounted for 35% of the buy-side responses, while 62% were by analysts.

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