In spite of the fact the calendar says this is the high-demand period for natural gas, physical traders for weekend and Monday delivery elected to pass on three-day deals and instead rely on the ease of electronic communications to make incremental purchases should the need arise.
Only a handful of market points made it to the positive side of the trading ledger, and most points were down a few pennies to a nickel. The NGI National Spot Gas Average fell 7 cents to $1.99. Eastern points shed closer to a dime. Natural gas futures made gains, but with less than a 5-cent range in the December contract the advance can hardly be called convincing. At the close, January had gained five-tenths of a cent to $2.186 and February had risen 1.5 cents to $2.247. January crude oil proved volatile with the January contract falling $1.11 to $39.97/bbl.
In the near term, traders see a market comfortable in its own skin. "I think you have a comfort zone against $2.16 to $2.20 up to $2.27 working to support the market," said a New York floor trader. Right at these levels I don't think there is fear of anything happening and I think there is scale down support buying just in anticipation there might be a cold snap coming in.
"No one is looking to sell the market and any shorts that come into the market are met with scale-down buying."
Other traders see the market as almost entirely weather-driven. This market now is mostly a weather play, and the short-term forecast is not supportive of higher prices, said a trader with FC Stone Latin America LLC in Miami.
"The short-term forecast looks way above average and even more so in the high-consuming regions of Chicago and the Northeast. Even the eight-14 day forecast isn't any friendlier. It could be the effects of El Nino making its way into the U.S. and causing a mild winter. We're hoping for a cold front or something that might stop the effect of El Nino and translate into higher prices.
"Speculators are being influenced by the weather, and if they don't see any reason to buy it, they are not. The lack of cold temperatures is not warranting any buying activity and without increased demand we could see continued horizontal pricing, which means a lack of consensus."
Market bears risk becoming complacent. "The risk in this market is to the upside. If we even get a glimpse of weather being colder than average, or if something happens where there is a spike in demand, prices could rally," the trader said.
Still others go so far as to say the market has discounted a mild winter. "We believe the market has already factored in a mild weather scenario for the remainder of the season so we do not expect a further material downward price correction if weather continues to run mild (just more rolling to $2.15-2.30/MMBtu level)," said Breanne Dougherty, an analyst with Societe Generale in New York. "If weather begins reverting back to normal, which is our base case, we expect a contained price rally. We hold our 2H2016 [Q3=$3.12] vs. 1H2016 [$2.66] constructive price thesis, but March storage exit can jeopardize the extent and timing of that price strengthening. That storage exit, of course, hinges almost entirely on weather."
Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates doesn't buy the discounted winter thesis and senses a market decline. "This week's main feature, from our vantage point, has been the market's ability to maintain value at around last Friday's close despite an extension of warmer than normal temperature views that are now stretching out to about the 18th of this month in most cases."
"The above-normal temperature expectations are expected to be concentrated within the heavily populated northeast quadrant of the U.S. This reduction in residential demand will be translating to some smaller than usual storage declines that will keep the supply surplus in expansionary mode. This is why we still see a high probability of a drop to about the $2.05 area, possibly next week if the mild forecasts continue. But it should also be noted that the cash market has held up well despite this week's mild conditions at price levels about 20 cents above last month's low."
Gas buyers needing incremental supplies for power generation over the weekend across the ERCOT footprint will have some wind generation to offset gas purchases. WSI Corp. in its Friday morning report said, "High pressure will settle into the south-central U.S. during the majority of the forecast period. This will generally lead to fair weather and near to slightly below average temperatures. Highs will range in the upper 50s, 60s to low 70s. Lows will dip into the 30s and 40s.
"A southerly flow will drive elevated wind generation during the next couple of days. Output is forecast to peak tonight upward of 8-10 GW. Wind gen will relax and become changeable during Sunday into early next week."
If analysts figures are correct, next week's storage withdrawal report is likely to be even greater than this week's 53 Bcf. According to reports, temperatures have been lower, thus precipitating higher gas usage. Preliminary estimates for the week ending Dec. 4 show a range of estimates from a pull of 45 Bcf to as much as 88 Bcf and an average of 61 Bcf, according to Reuters. Last year, 47 Bcf was withdrawn and the five-year pace is 65 Bcf.
In the physical market softer pricing abounded led by the Northeast. Weekend and Monday gas at the Algonquin Citygate skidded 61 cents to $2.14, and deliveries on Iroquois, Waddington shed 13 cents to $2.13. Gas on Tenn Zone 6 200L fell 48 cents to $2.19.
Major hubs showed little price movement. Gas at the Chicago Citygate was unchanged at $2.11, and deliveries to the Henry Hub gave up 3 cents to $2.08. Gas at the PG&E Citygate was flat at $2.60.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported non-farm payrolls increased by 211,000 during November, slightly greater than analyst estimates of 200,000. The figure is not expected to deter the Federal Reserve from raising interest rates, and the unemployment rate held steady at 5%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained a stout 370 points.