After exploring the entire range of its $7 to $8 borders during the last month, it was only fitting that May natural gas futures would go off of the board Thursday afternoon right in the middle at $7.508, down 18.1 cents on the day. June natural gas, which steps up to front-month status, dropped 17.9 cents to $7.602.
After moving lower in morning trade, the may contract hit somewhat of a temporary roadblock after the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported Thursday morning that a measly 18 Bcf was injected into underground storage for the week ended April 20. However, the price support from the small injection, which was bullish when compared to the date-adjusted 77 Bcf net injection from last year and the 65 Bcf five-year average build, was short lived. Just before 11 a.m., the prompt month resumed trading lower, putting in a $7.420 low at 2 p.m. before rallying a bit in the final 30 minutes as traders tried to take advantage of the expiration.
The New York Mercantile Exchange, which uses a weighted average of the trades done during the last two minutes of trading in a regular session, uses the last 30 minutes of trading to calculate the final settlement on expiration day. In the last half hour of gas trading Thursday, the expiring May contract jumped off the $7.420 low to as high as $7.550 before inching lower to close.
A cool start to spring has diminished early additions to storage. Last week a rare 46 Bcf for the week ended April 13 was reported withdrawn from storage to meet heating requirements in eastern and Midwest energy markets. Thursday's figure showed a nominal build, but well below historical norms.
"The storage number was right in line, so in other words it was already in the market," said Ed Kennedy, a broker with Commercial Brokerage Corp. in Miami. Proven to be a fortune teller, the broker said Thursday morning, "I still think we are going to expire right around $7.500. Then we'll see what June brings. We are still in this $7 to $8 range and I don't see it changing either. Look at the June contract sitting in the $7.50s...gee, what a surprise!
"I do think we are building a base, which has been in the works since all of the way back to January 2006," he added. "I would categorize this thing as having greater risk to the upside than down, but I don't know when and what would predicate a breakout to the upside. In this situation, I think I would be using options for June, July and August. I would buy the breakout points just above $8, so at least I could sleep at night while waiting to see what happens."
Looking at the summer, Kennedy said heat and hurricanes could get things moving in the longer term. "A real heat wave could probably get things moving, but that is not forecast in the short term. Yes, we are going to have an active hurricane season, but we did last year as well. Fortunately none of them hit land," he said. "In 1992 there was only Hurricane Andrew, which was devastating, so the forecast for an active hurricane season really means nothing. However, all of the models are saying that Florida and the Gulf of Mexico are 'open for business' this year, so we will see."
"An 18 Bcf injection was basically in line with market expectations, although it's still anyone's guess where the market expects [the May contract] to settle," said Jay Levine, a broker with enerjay LLC.
Going into trading Thursday, some market watchers expected expiration to be uninspired as open interest in the May contract stood at a modest 21,809 contracts, well below levels normally observed prior to a contract expiration. "A lot of TAS [trade at settlement] and EFS [exchange of futures for swaps] went through [Wednesday]," a New York floor trader said, adding that expiration was likely to be "boring."
While expiration did occur without fireworks -- proving the trader correct, other predictions will take more time for confirmation. MarketWatch reported that analysts at Commerzbank said in a recent research note that they expect natural gas prices to rise to as high as $10 in the second half of the year because of a higher risk of hurricanes.
The storage injection was mostly within industry projections as a Reuters survey of 21 industry players produced an average expectation of a 17 Bcf build, while the ICAP storage options auction came up with a consensus build expectation of 15.5 Bcf. Golden, CO-based Bentek Energy said its Flow model projected an injection of 16 Bcf.
According to the EIA, working gas in storage was 1,564 Bcf as of April 20. Stocks are 276 Bcf less than last year at this time and 233 Bcf above the five-year average of 1,331 Bcf. The Producing region led the injection charge for the week by stashing 11 Bcf, while the West and East regions chipped in 6 Bcf and 1 Bcf, respectively.
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