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Weekly NatGas Cash Posts Another Solid Gain, Yet Futures Falter

Weather-driven reality outdid weather-driven anticipation in weekly physical natural gas trading ending March 17. The NGI Weekly National Spot Gas Average rose a stout 29 cents to $3.07, one penny more than the prior week's 28-cent advance to $2.78.

Hefty gains early in the week were prompted by the arrival of blizzard-like conditions in New England, and of the actively traded points Algonquin Citygate gained the most, rising $2.54 to $6.87. Northwest Sumas brought up the rear, losing 18 cents to $2.31. Regionally, the Northeast rose $1.32 to $4.97, and the Rocky Mountains finished last, coming in flat at $2.51.

Clearly the market action was in the East, as California added just 2 cents to $2.78 and the Midcontinent followed with quotes 9 cents higher at $2.71. 

The Midwest was higher by 12 cents to $2.92, South Texas rose 14 cents to $2.86, and East Texas added 16 cents to $2.89.

South Louisiana rose 19 cents to $2.89, Appalachia jumped 44 cents to $2.90, and the Southeast gained 70 cents to $3.60.

April futures shed 6.0 cents to $2.948.

On Thursday the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a storage withdrawal of 53 Bcf for the week ending March 10, slightly less than expectations, and that added to the bearish tonality of the day's trading. At the close April had fallen 7.9 cents to $2.902 and May was down 7.3 cents to $2.967.

Futures hit the skids early Thursday morning after the EIA's 10:30 a.m. EDT storage report, which came in at about 3 Bcf less than industry estimates. April futures fell to $2.888, and by 10:45 a.m. April was trading at $2.914, down 6.7 cents from Wednesday's settlement.

Prior to the report, Ritterbusch and Associates was looking for a 52 Bcf withdrawal, and analysts at ICAP Energy calculated a 57 Bcf decline. A Reuters survey of 20 traders and analysts showed an average 56 Bcf pull with a range of 47 Bcf to 72 Bcf. Last year a measly 9 Bcf was withdrawn, but the five-year pace for the week is an 85 Bcf pull.

"We were looking for a 56 Bcf withdrawal, and the 53 Bcf falls right in the scheme of things," said a New York floor trader. "It looks like $3 is a good resistance number and $2.85 support with $2.75 below that."

"The net withdrawal of 53 Bcf was less than the consensus for a 56-57 Bcf draw and below the 85 Bcf five-year average decline, and so moderately bearish," said Tim Evans of Citi Futures Perspective. "While this implies a somewhat weaker overall supply-demand balance, in the current era it's hard to tell whether a shift in trade flows, such as a delay in LNG export shipments, may have been the cause."

Others were also in the bear camp. "We believe the storage report will be viewed as slightly negative," said Randy Ollenberger, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets. "Storage is trending below last year's levels; however, rising associated gas production should keep U.S. storage levels at or above five-year averages assuming normal weather."

Inventories now stand at 2,242 Bcf and are 236 Bcf less than last year and 395 Bcf greater than the five-year average. In the East Region 36 Bcf was withdrawn, and the Midwest Region saw inventories decrease by 22 Bcf. Stocks in the Mountain Region fell 2 Bcf, and the Pacific Region was up 2 Bcf. The South Central Region added 5 Bcf.

In Friday's trading natural gas for weekend and Monday delivery at most points eased a couple of pennies, but outsize declines at just a few New England points skewed the average several cents lower.

The NGI National Spot Gas Average fell 8 cents to $2.73, marking the third consecutive cash market decline and a drop of 60 cents in just the last three days.

Futures were able to recover a portion of Thursday's 8 cent loss. April rose 4.6 cents to $2.948 and May gained 3.7 cents to $3.004. April crude oil added 3 cents to $48.78, only the second higher close in the last two weeks.

Multi-dollar losses, prompted in large part by a softer power market, were way out of the experience of other market centers. Intercontinental Exchange reported that Monday peak power at ISO New England's Massachusetts Hub plunged $12.82 to $38.93/MWh, but other power distribution points were lower as well. On-peak Monday power at the PJM West terminal eased $1.84 to $31.92/MWh. Power at the Indiana Hub skidded $5.28 to $30.00/MWh.

Gas at the Algonquin Citygate tumbled $2.32 to $4.28, and deliveries to Iroquois, Waddington were quoted 16 cents lower at $3.39. Parcels on Tenn Zone 6 200L changed hands $2.13 lower at $4.21.

Marcellus points also softened. Gas on Dominion South fell 5 cents to $2.63, and gas on Tennessee Zn 4 Marcellus changed hands 3 cents lower at $2.62. Gas on Transco-Leidy Line was flat at $2.66.

Other major market centers eased a penny or two. Gas at the Chicago Citygate fell a penny to $2.76, and packages at the Henry Hub came in 3 cents lower at $2.82. Gas on El Paso Permian lost a penny to $2.40, and gas priced at the SoCal Border Avg. Average was unchanged at $2.52.

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Temperatures in the East were forecast to remain below average, but the Midwest was expected to be 13 degrees above normal by Monday. Wunderground.com forecast that the high in New York City Friday of 44 would drop to 38 Saturday and climb back to 48 by Monday, 2 degrees below normal. Chicago's 45 high Friday was seen holding Saturday before reaching 60 on Monday, well above its 47-degree norm.

Reports of robust additions to the oil and gas rig count were not enough to deter futures bulls. According to data from Baker Hughes Inc. Oklahoma added 10 rigs to its weekly tally, while Texas only added four, Meanwhile, Canadian rigs are getting out of the patch before the roads turn to mud in the annual exodus known as spring breakup.

Nor did indications that a major investment bank was lowering its 2017 natural gas price forecast cause bulls to blink either. Another warmer-than-usual winter has led Barclays to reduce its 2017 natural gas price forecast to $3.02/MMBtu from $3.38. The 2Q2017 forecast was slashed to $2.78 from $3.25.

With the second-warmest winter on record, 9% warmer than expected, gas demand didn't materialize, said analyst Nicholas Potter. Barclays' bullish gas price expectations for 2017 have been pushed into next year.

Traders couldn't find much difference in near-term weather outlooks.

Overnight weather models didn't change much. "Warmer changes in the short-term appear to be mostly associated with model overemphasis of snow cover impacts, but warmer changes in the six-10 day and 11-15 day are tied to storm track changes and a more active flow from the West," said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group, in a Friday morning report to clients.

"Most of the Midwest and East are still mostly near normal through the six-15 day range, with some colder lingering leans in the Northeast. Very warm conditions across the South are helping to offer up some early season afternoon cooling demand, especially toward the Texas side, where 80s could be more frequent."

Although Thursday's Energy Information Administration (EIA) storage report swelled the year-on-five-year surplus to 395 Bcf, analysts are suspecting next week's report to provide a final last boost of weather support to the market.

"[W]hile the weather factor appears to be providing one last burst of support prior to the shoulder period, below-normal expectations during the next couple of weeks appear limited to the Northeast region, with most of the country showing little accumulation of HDDs or CDDs," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates in a Friday morning report to clients.

"But while yesterday's EIA storage report that was in line with average ideas may have been viewed as bearish with the surplus against five-year averages stretching by about 32 Bcf, the market is more focused on next week's report that could show a reduction of more than 30% in the surplus as a result of this week's cold trends within the eastern region."

Gas buyers for power generation across the ERCOT footprint over the weekend should have plenty of wind generation available to offset gas purchases.

"The tail end of a cold front will clip the state late tonight into Saturday with just a chance for a shower or thunderstorm," said WSI Corp. in a Friday morning report to clients. "This will knock temps down just a bit, but southerly winds and late spring like warmth will return during Sunday into early next week. Max temps will rise into the upper 70s, 80s to low 90s. Wind generation will subside later today and again early Saturday, but another pulse of southerly winds will lead to surge of wind gen late Saturday into Monday. Output is forecast to rise to 10-13 GW."

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