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With EIA Storage Dark, Industry Estimates To Stand In?

In the wake of the news Friday that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) would cease operations and furlough its staff thanks to the U.S. Government shutdown, traders and analysts are waiting to see how the natural gas futures market deals with the lack of a weekly storage inventory update.

The government agency's report -- which reveals the change in storage levels during the previous week -- normally comes out at 10:30 a.m. eastern on Thursday and has long been a natural gas futures market mover. While one cancelled storage report will likely have little effect on the market, traders are concerned if the government shutdown persists, what the impact on markets will be when the EIA drops a bulk report covering multiple weeks of inventory changes.

The U.S. Department of Energy's EIA, one of the few governmental agencies that was able to stay open during the first few days of the shutdown because it had non-annual funds, said it would cease operations and furlough its staff at the end of the day last Friday.

"Data releases and analyses [such as weekly storage reports] will not be published during the furlough of EIA staff," EIA spokesman Jonathan Cogan said. However, "survey respondents, who EIA will be contacting directly, should continue to submit their data, which will be processed after the furlough period is over."

Approximately 346 EIA federal employees were furloughed, and 215 contractors will be affected as well, said Thomas Williams, EIA assistant administrator for resource and technology management.

Thanks to the shale gas production boom of recent years, whether or not storage reaches "full" heading into the winter heating season has been called a moot point by many market watchers. Storage currently stands at 3,577 Bcf. With four weeks remaining in the traditional injection season, an average of 88 Bcf would need to be injected weekly to reach last year's record build of 3,930 Bcf, and 50 Bcf would need to be stored to reach the five-year average of 3,776 Bcf. That said, the shutdown is still on the radar of traders.

"Before the EIA report, it was the AGA report, and I can even remember when there was no report," said veteran broker Tom Saal, vice president of INTL FC Stone. "People are inquisitive about what the data shutdown really means in terms of the impact on the natural gas markets. I think it means we probably won't have a lot of volatility in natural gas futures at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday."

In all seriousness, Saal said it will be interesting to see how market speculators react to the lack of data. "I think there are certain speculators that only trade around the data, so they probably won't be active, but all of the other speculators are still in the market." he said.

Saal added that the long-time analyst and trader estimates of the storage numbers will likely be a good substitute while the EIA is dark. "A lot of people rely on these industry estimates and surveys, and I wouldn't be surprised if people didn't go forward with these as a short-term stand-in."

In the days leading up to Thursday's reports, analysts and traders state their expectations for the week -- based on weather, pipeline flows, power generation load and production -- then news services such as Bloomberg and Reuters conduct surveys to create a consensus.

Citi Futures Perspective Tim Evans agreed with Saal. "Of course, in the absence of [EIA] reports, the market may trade on its own estimates without fear of contradiction."

However, if the shutdown ends up dragging on for a couple more weeks, Saal said things could become interesting. "While I don't anticipate any real shake-up in the market on one missed EIA report, if a couple weeks go by, the government ends up coming back, and the EIA drops a storage report covering a few weeks, then we could see some real market reaction as traders adjust to actual inventories."

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