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Despite Eastern Storm, Cash Weakens and February Futures Falter at Expiration

Next-day gas for Thursday delivery fell hard and often in Wednesday's trading as temperature forecasts in key market centers showed a warming trend and power prices retreated.

Although most market points were down a few pennies to a nickel, multi-dollar losses at Northeast points tugged the average loss to double digits. Overall the market fell 36 cents to average $2.94, and declines were widespread from the Marcellus to the Midwest, Gulf, Midcontinent, and California.

February futures limped lower on expiration to go off of the board at $2.866, down 11.5 cents, and March was lower by 9.3 cents to $2.842. March crude oil traded at a new five-and-a-half-year low before finishing the day at $44.45, down $1.78.

Prices across the Midwest fell as weather forecasts called for milder temperatures above historical norms. AccuWeather.com said Milwaukee's high Wednesday of 34 would rise to 38 Thursday before dropping to 24 Friday. The seasonal high is 29. Chicago's Wednesday high of 35 was expected to hold Thursday before dropping to 23 Friday. The normal high this time of year is 32. Detroit's high of 26 on Wednesday was expected to jump to 37 Thursday before falling back to 17 on Friday. The normal high in Detroit is 31.

Gas for delivery Thursday on Alliance fell a penny to $2.88, and deliveries at the ANR Joliet Hub slipped 2 cents to $2.88, as well. Gas at the Chicago Citygates was quoted 3 cents lower at $2.85, and deliveries to Michcon came in a nickel lower at $2.91. Gas on Consumers changed hands at $2.90, down a nickel, and at Demarcation Thursday gas was seen unchanged at $2.80.

Midwest buyers may not be pursuing much gas on the daily market for the foreseeable future.

"A lot of people locked up their basis and bought way back in the fall," said a Michigan marketer. "Now everyone is full and there is no place for the gas to go.”

Forecasters at AccuWeather.com see a rising thermometer -- until Sunday.

"Temperatures will be on the rise as showers approach Chicago into Thursday morning, [but] the showers will mostly be rain, but there may be some snowflakes mixed in," meteorologist Maggie Samuhel said. "Thursday will be windy with temperatures in the upper 30s. Although temperatures decrease to the upper 20s on Friday, the late week will bring a dry, sunny period through Saturday.

"People should really take advantage of Saturday because it is the calm before the next storm brings accumulating snow on Sunday, [and] the snow on Sunday has the chance to accumulate significantly, which could cause several disruptions in travel. Snow showers may continue into Monday, and temperatures will remain in the low teens throughout the week."

Northeast points took the biggest hits, with gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 dropping $6.24 to $3.75, and deliveries on Tetco M-3 falling $2.32 to $3.67.

Gas at the Algonquin Citygates was seen 16 cents lower at $8.96, and deliveries at Iroquois Waddington tumbled $2.92 to $4.73. Gas at Iroquois Zone 2 skidded $3.38 to $5.35.

The Marcellus by and large escaped the pervasive selling. Millennium came in down a penny at $1.16, and gas on Transco Leidy fell 6 cents to $1.11. On Tennessee Zone 4, Marcellus next-day deliveries changed hands unchanged at $1.12, and packages on Dominion South fell a penny to $1.84.

Peak power prices were also seen weaker. The IntercontinentalExchange reported that peak power Thursday at the ISO New England's Massachusetts Hub fell $11.47 to $74.95/MWh, and peak power at the PJM West terminal shed $11.14 to $39.02.

As New Englanders dig out of from the snow, power loads are seen falling. ISO New England forecast that peak loads Wednesday of 19,700 MW would fall to 19,060 MW Thursday and 18,190 MW Friday. To the south, across the wider PJM footprint, power loads were expected to rise and then fall. Wednesday's peak load of 42,773 MW was predicted to rise to 43,597 MW Thursday before receding Friday to 40,928 MW.

Futures traders were unimpressed with the final trading of the February contract.

"Not much went on and the closing range for the last half hour was only 3 cents," said a New York floor trader. "This looks so cheap to me with a settlement of $2.866 for February, and we just got dumped on. There must be a lot of gas out there.”

Thursday's storage report by the Energy Information Administration is expected to expand the surplus relative to last year and thin the year-on-five-year deficit. Last year 219 Bcf was withdrawn and the five-year pace stands at a 168 Bcf withdrawal.

IAF Advisors calculates a pull of 108 Bcf and ICAP Energy is looking for a decline of 114 Bcf. A Reuters survey of 21 traders and analysts resulted in an average of 113 Bcf with a range of -97 Bcf to -144 Bcf.

Weather forecasts continued to flip-flop, and Wednesday's soft open was seen as moderation set in across the Northeast. WSI Corp. in its six- to 10-day outlook said Wednesday’s six-10 day period forecast was similar to Tuesday’s. “However, it's not quite as cold across the Northeast, but even colder across the Midwest, Plains and Front Range during the back half of the period.

"Forecast confidence is about average as models are in reasonably good agreement with the cold pattern. However, model variability and inconsistency with the details are limiting factors. There are risks in either direction given the inconsistency with the models. The general risk may be to the colder side over the eastern two thirds of the nation, while the West has a slight upside risk."

The market moves with every adjustment to the weather forecasts. Tim Evans of Citi Futures Perspective in closing comments Tuesday said "traders are also on the alert for any surprises in Thursday's DOE storage report for the week ended Jan. 23. The consensus view may still be in a state of flux, but early editions of the major newswire surveys are running close to our own forecast for 113 Bcf in net withdrawals, a bearish outcome compared with the 168 Bcf five-year average for the date."

By the middle of February Evans sees the year-on-five-year deficit less than 100 Bcf and noted that "the storage scenario looks somewhat more supportive” than on Monday, with the Feb. 13 “year-on-five-year average projected at 95 Bcf instead of 72 Bcf, but the overall pattern is similar, with the modest overall net change in the year-on-five-year average deficit suggesting the data is neutral on a seasonally adjusted basis.

"Natural gas may still retain some potential for a later winter rally if the second half of February proves cold and the deficit lingers longer than anticipated, but we also see potential for the market to weaken as complacency regarding supplies increases after the midpoint of the winter is past."      

Evans suggested using a buy stop at $3.06 in the March contract as a way to establish a market position with stop loss protection at $2.71. He would raise the stop to $2.96 if March could trade to $3.30.

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