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Bearish Hurricane Forecast Lends No Support to Futures

Natural gas futures bulls are finding that they just can't catch a break as values continue to plumb new lows for the move. The April contract subtracted more than a dime on Wednesday as bearish projections for Thursday's storage report meshed with a bearish 2009 Atlantic hurricane forecast from AccuWeather.com.

The April contract on Wednesday recorded a new low for the move of $3.672 in afternoon trading before closing out the regular session at $3.684, down 12.8 cents from Tuesday's close. Front-month futures have not traded this low since early October 2002.

"The natural gas market remains on the defensive, without enough nearby heating demand to prevent further price erosion," said Tim Evans, an analyst with Citi Futures Perspective in New York. "There are also bearish expectations for Thursday's DOE [Department of Energy] storage report, with some projecting net withdrawals in the 15-20 Bcf range, well below either our own 40 Bcf estimate or the 62 Bcf five-year average."

Research and analysis firm Bentek Energy said its flow model indicates a withdrawal of 16 Bcf for the week ended March 13, which would bring stocks 8.6% below the five-year high and 17% above the five-year average. Bentek said it expects a 20 Bcf draw from the East region and a 11 Bcf draw from the West region, but a 15 Bcf addition in the Producing region.

Southern Natural Gas provided support for Evans' expectation for a net injection in the Producing region, having reported earlier in the week that its storage inventories as of last Saturday were 33.5 Bcf, or 2.1 Bcf higher than the volume reported as of March 5 (see Daily GPI, March 18).

For weeks, traders and analysts alike have been anxiously awaiting summer heat and hurricane forecasts as they look for news on which the bulls can actually gain some traction. Apparently they will have to keep looking for now. AccuWeather.com Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi said Wednesday that fewer named storms will be created during the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season and there will probably be less activity in the Gulf of Mexico than last year (see related story).

"We also note that AccuWeather is forecasting a less active 2009 Atlantic hurricane season than last year, with their call for 13 named storms, eight hurricanes and two major storms a step down from 2008 and its 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and five major storms," Evans added.

However, the analyst noted that forecasts made this far out should not be taken as gospel. "Forecasts made from early June have a better track record, as is understandable given that the conditions for the start of the June-November season will then be known."

Traders have been unimpressed with the recent response of the natural gas market to the gains in the petroleum sector. "The most notable feature of this week's trade has been the inability to piece together much of a price rally, even as the oil and equity markets have been posting solid gains for more than a week," said Jim Ritterbusch of Ritterbusch and Associates. April crude on Wednesday ended up stumbling a bit by dropping $1.02 to $48.14/bbl.

Ritterbusch is looking for modest withdrawals in Thursday's natural gas storage report and perhaps an early end to the withdrawal season. He does concede, however, that "new lows will be heavily contingent upon a significant sell-off in either the petroleum complex and/or equity markets."

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