Despite enduring a topsy-turvy week of large swings in both directions, March natural gas futures finished the week within shouting distance of where they began. After hitting a high of $8.650 late in the afternoon, the prompt month settled at $8.613, up 26.6 cents on the day and 10.6 cents higher than the contract's previous-week close.
Forecasts of cold in a number of key gas-demand regions for the first full week of February, combined with continued crude oil tension abroad, continue to shape the natural gas futures market. While natural gas storage is at near-record levels for this time of year, some market experts said a lasting cold front could still impact the futures market, if only slightly.
"I think a lot of the increase on Friday was short-covering," said Brad Florer, a broker with ICAP Energy. "I am not sure how much of it is buying. It seems like a lot of the people that took the air out of the market this week took some profits at the end. There are still people out there touting this possible big chill in a week, so I think if you were short you didn't want to walk in Monday morning and see that as a stronger possibility."
As for the forecasts for cold coming on this week, the broker said he really doesn't think it matters that much this late in the season. Of interest is the whole crude futures structure, with the current geopolitical fears. "If we get crude bouncing again and some colder weather does materialize, we will probably see a move up," Florer said. "However, on the whole, I am still very bearish. There is just too much gas."
AccuWeather.com said two major storm systems were expected to bring winter back over the weekend. One snowstorm was expected to move through the Ohio Valley with heavy snow, as another storm blasted the Pacific Northwest with winds up to 80 mph and heavy rain. "The wild weather signals the change in the overall weather pattern back to winter for the eastern half of the country," said Henry Margusity, an AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist.
Florer said the industry should keep its eyes on the crude sector. "The only thing I think that could really save [natural gas] longs and get bulls fired up is if the Iranian situation heats up again and crude starts running, which will pull gas along for the ride. Beyond that, any rally we see will just be a bounce to be sold."
Commenting on last week's trade, Florer said it really looked like consolidation. "We are basically where we went out the week prior," he said. "We went up on Monday, came back off on Wednesday and now here we sit. I really think we are consolidating to move lower, based on what the fundamentals are saying."
On Thursday, the Energy Information Administration inventory figures showed withdrawals of 88 Bcf, about in line with expectations, but well below last year's withdrawal of 193 Bcf and the five-year average pull of 172 Bcf. Prices fell, but in spite of Thursday's losses some analysts see an end to the current downtrend. Rakesh Shankar, an economist at Moody's Economy.com, said natural gas prices will "likely trend up in the next few days as the focus shifts toward the impending cold-weather patterns forming over the next few weeks."
He suggested "natural gas prices are unlikely to fall much lower," adding that they "already have moderated sharply in the past month -- making natural gas officially the cheapest fuel in the market."
March heating oil futures settled Friday 1.08 cents higher at $1.7816/gallon on Friday, equivalent to $12.90/MMBtu, and March crude oil finished the day 69 cents higher at $65.37/bbl or $10.90/MMBtu.
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