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Cash, Futures Race Each Other Lower on Thaw; April NatGas Swoons 16 Cents

Only a handful of points in the Marcellus escaped Monday's broad and pervasive weather-driven selling for next-day deliveries. One day after clocks moved an hour ahead and a little more than a week before spring officially begins, temperatures around much of the country warmed up significantly. As a result, the Northeast saw dollar-plus natural gas index losses, Gulf points were down about 20 cents, and the Midwest and Great Lakes skidded approximately 15 cents.

The overall market decline was a stout 34 cents to $2.46. Futures started the day down sharply as longer term weather forecasts turned warmer. At the close April had lost 16.1 cents to $2.678 and May was lower by 15.9 cents to $2.713. April crude oil added 39 cents to $50.00/bbl.

Next-day prices plunged as temperatures were forecast to reach above-normal readings from New England, the Ohio Valley, to the Great Lakes and Midwest. Forecaster Wunderground.com predicted the high Monday in Boston of 49 would ease to 48 Tuesday before making it to 52 on Wednesday. The seasonal high in Boston is 43. Cleveland's Monday peak of 46 was expected to slide to 45 Tuesday before easing to 42 Wednesday, still 3 degrees above normal. In Chicago the Monday high of 50 was anticipated to rise to 53 Tuesday before backing off to 45 Wednesday. The normal high in the Windy City for March is 44.

Tuesday packages at the Algonquin Citygates fell $2.65 to $4.00 and gas on Iroquois Waddington shed 48 cents to $3.29. On Tennessee Zone 6 200 L next-day gas skidded $2.03 to $3.50.

Sellers in the Mid-Atlantic experienced more moderate declines. Gas bound for New York City on Transco Zone 6 fell 48 cents to $2.65 and packages on Tetco M-3 changed hands 98 cents lower at $1.73.

In the Marcellus the pervasive selling at virtually all other market points was not in play. Gas on Millennium was seen 8 cents lower at $1.37 and deliveries to Transco Leidy added 7 cents to $1.30. Deliveries on Tennessee Zone 4 Marcellus rose 3 cents to $1.23 and on Dominion South Tuesday packages were quoted 75 cents lower at $1.47.

Midwest and Great Lakes points were off by double digits. Gas on Alliance was seen 19 cents lower at $2.71 and packages at the Chicago Citygates changed hands 16 cents lower at $2.68. On Consumers Tuesday parcels came in 13 cents lower at $2.86 and gas on Michcon fell 13 cents to $2.84. On Northern Natural Ventura gas was quoted at $2.53, down 18 cents.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in suburban Chicago reported that "A warm front stationed over central Illinois will creep into northern Illinois overnight on a light southerly breeze. This is in response to an upper trough approaching the Midwest. The warm front will bring higher dewpoint temperatures northward to around a line from DeKalb to Chicago which will help erode some of the snow pack. This should lead to some patchy fog. Expecting stratus with the warm front as well... but it is uncertain exactly how far north it will spread through Tuesday morning."

Softer next-day peak power prices also made incremental purchases of gas for power generation less attractive. Intercontinental Exchange reported that peak Tuesday power at the New York ISO Zone G delivery point (eastern New York) fell $3.00 to $50.00/MWh and peak power at the ISO New England's Massachusetts Hub shed $22.19 to $43.29/MWh. Next-day peak power at the PJM West terminal fell $5.45 to $36.08/MWh.

Gulf prices also sagged. Deliveries Tuesday to ANR SE lost 21 cents to $2.65 and gas on Columbia Gulf Mainline was seen off 21 cents to $2.62. Gas at the Henry Hub fell 16 cents to $2.72. On Tennessee 500 L Tuesday packages were quoted at $2.67, down 21 cents and gas at Katy fell 17 cents to $2.63.

From the standpoint of meteorologists winter is now over, but that doesn't relieve the market of weather sensitivity. "The brutal winter, especially east of the Mississippi and in particular the Northeast, is largely over. After the coldest or second coldest February on record in most of the Northeast, a thaw is finally underway," said AccuWeather.com meteorologist Joe Lundberg. "Snow is melting, the birds are singing, and spring fever is busting out all over!"

"Much of what [snow] remains in the Ohio Valley and the mid-Atlantic will be gone in a few days, and the depth will clearly go down across Pennsylvania and New York into New England, though in these more northern regions, the snow depth is so great, there is still so much water locked up in the snowpack, and it won't be as mild, that the snow will still be around for a while. And more may be on the way Friday night into the weekend in those same areas of upstate New York and at least central and northern New England.

"Even in the northern Plains and Midwest, the snowcover will steadily diminish as the week progresses as what little cold air remains in the pattern is largely diverted around the region. All I can say is it has been a long time in coming, and I know of almost no one who will be upset by this pattern change. Clearly spring has sprung around the nation as a whole, even if its jumping the 'official' gun by a couple of weeks," said Lundberg.

Spring may be sprung, but tell that to natural gas traders. "On the whole, we expect that the last third of March to run generally colder than normal for the eastern half of the U.S. while the western states will likely remain warm," said Teri Viswanath, director of natural gas trading strategy at BNP Paribas.

"Nevertheless, this week's emerging spring-like weather will usher in the end of the winter withdrawal season." Viswanath is expecting the industry to "hit the brakes on winter destocking with storage withdrawals falling sharply from 195 Bcf for the week ending March 6 to just 40-45 Bcf for the week ending March 13.

"Consequently, with the industry on a sharp downhill descent in inventory destocking, the end-of-season sell-off has resumed.  Indeed, with looser balances around the corner, sustained natural gas price recovery appears to be months away in our opinion."

Longer term weather forecasts turned warmer over the weekend. "The big story over the weekend is the extended duration and stronger intensity of the middle-month moderation, leading to general demand losses compared to Friday's outlook," said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group, in the firm's morning forecast.

He added that earlier reports showing changes to more warmth "still stand this morning, but we are finally seeing some bigger trends toward the cooler to colder direction in the 11-15 day. There is an interesting disconnect, though, occurring between the upper-level patterns and the surface expectations on the various models. The guidance all shows a spiking new Alaskan-to-Yukon high-pressure ridge pattern, and most of them even introduce Greenland ridging (a rare sight); however, they do not show much cold at the surface yet.

"This may be due to a combination of the removal of the snow feedback, the introduction of spring, and some Pacific undercutting influences. Whatever the case, we believe the models are underestimating the colder weather return for late month."

Technical analysts see bulls having to prove their case. In a weekly analysis Walter Zimmerman, vice president at United ICAP, noted that last week the market did rebound form "critical $2.635 support on Tuesday and spent the remainder of the week chugging higher. Bulls need that chug higher to persist to have any case. Peg $2.980 to $3.035 pivotal resistance for natgas bulls, which brings up the point of sentiment. This is still a market full of speculative shorts. If natgas continued higher, it will not be thanks to the bulls. It will be thanks to frustrated bears.

"If $3.039 [Feb. 23] was a major peak then natgas should not be able to get above the $2.960-2.980. If $2.567 [Feb. 9] was a major low then natgas should not be able to get below the $2.690-2.670. The seasonal cycle favors the bulls."

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