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Futures Rally on Storage and Weather; Resistance at $5.60 is Pivotal

Futures Rally on Storage and Weather; Resistance at $5.60 is Pivotal

After plumbing new two-month lows late last week, the natural gas futures market rebounded impressively Monday on the undeniably bullish combination of surging crude oil prices, forecasts calling for continued below-normal temperatures and expectations ahead of this Thursday's storage report.

The March contract received the biggest buying boost, climbing 17.7 cents to close at $5.574. At 33,630, estimated volume was light, casting doubt on the day's advances.

By advancing nearly 6% Monday, the March crude oil contract was a strong deterrent for natural gas traders who may have been looking to add to last week's price slide. With its $1.93 advance and $34.98 close, the prompt crude contract is within striking distance of its recent top at $35.25.

Also helping to support natural gas prices Monday was the latest barrage of weather forecasts. While private weather forecasters were looking for some moderation of the record cold experienced during the month of January, governmental outlooks were calling for more of the same. According to the latest six- to 10-day and eight- to 14-day forecasts released Monday by the National Weather Service, below-normal temperatures are expected to continue through at least February 16 for a bulk of the country. Only New England, a sliver of the Pacific Northwest and the southern half of Florida is expected to deviate from the unseasonably chilly temperatures.

And while the forecasts going forward are bullish, the market's performance under similarly frigid conditions during the month of January is decidedly bearish. According to New York-based Weather 2000, New York and Washington DC notched their second-coldest January in 27 and 22 years respectively. Further north, the chill was truly inhuman with Boston notching its coldest January in 116 years of recorded weather history, the forecasting agency reported.

But despite those considerable records, the natural gas distribution and storage system proved it was up to the task. Except for a brief spike in New England cash market prices, volatility was actually down for the month of January (compared to December) and supply disruptions were held to a minimum. Possibly the most surprising outcome following the month of January is that storage remains comfortably above both the year ago and five year average levels.

Early expectations for this Thursday's storage report -- covering the last week of January -- are for a net withdrawal of 210-227 Bcf. A number of that magnitude would exceed both the year ago takeaway of 208 Bcf as well as the five-year average drawdown of 133 Bcf. "The Jan-30 week was by far the coldest week of this heating season both in absolute [heating degree day] terms and relative to weekly norms," wrote analyst Stephen Smith in a weekly research note. Based on heating degree days calculated at 47 above normal for the week and 21 more than the week prior, Smith predicts a 227 Bcf draw.

And while the storage outlook may offer bulls support, the technical picture remains somewhat negative. Specifically, chart watchers target significant resistance in the $5.55-5.60 area. Should an initial attempt to push above that area fail early Tuesday, sellers would likely punish the prompt month. In early after hours trading, the market was probing above that key level, trading at $5.601 as of 5:20 p.m. EST Monday evening.

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