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Market Gets Stronger, But Still Mostly Soft

Softness prevailed again Wednesday in most of the cash market despite lows around the freezing level or less returning in the Thursday forecasts for most locations in the Midwest and Northeast. However, there was a much closer balance between rising and falling points, indicating a bit more price strength than before.

A modest majority of points saw losses ranging from 2-3 cents to about 15 cents. The rest of the market was flat to about 55 cents higher. Even with the area due to rebound from Wednesday's one-day drop to colder temperatures, the Rockies recorded most of the largest gains.

The top run-up was something of an aberration as Carthage was recovering nearly all of Tuesday's plunge of 57 cents. Not including Carthage, upticks Wednesday were capped at about a quarter.

Thursday's cash market will continue to have negative guidance from prior-day futures. After starting Wednesday in slightly positive territory, April futures finished 12.8 cents as expectations of a low-volume storage withdrawal report and a bearish 2009 hurricane forecast weighed on the prompt-month contract (see related story).

The new incursions of cold in the Midwest and Northeast are expected to be short-lived, with more seasonal temperatures returning going into the weekend. A cold front will bring rain for the morning commute along much of the Northeast's I-95 corridor Thursday, according to The Weather Channel, but the front will be moving out to sea later in the day.

A cold front in the upper Mid-South will temporarily make the previous spring-like conditions a memory, with Little Rock, AR, and Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee expected to bottom out from the mid 30s to the low 40s Thursday. However, highs in the 70s will continue to either side of the region's midsection. Some Midcontinent locations such as Oklahoma City also will drop into the low 40s.

The Rockies, which had been enjoying highs stretching into the lower 70s Tuesday, saw a quick plunge to lows on either side of freezing Wednesday but will quickly begin climbing back to milder conditions Thursday. The rest of the West will range from merely cold in Western Canada to a high around 90 in the Phoenix area.

A Midwest utility buyer helped explain why citygates tended to be a bit softer despite the colder forecasts. Wednesday's overnight low would be about 31 in his area, but that would still be during the Wednesday gas day, he said. Temperatures will be warming up into the low 50s later Thursday and get even higher into the upper 50s Friday, he said.

The utility's gas loads "are way off," the buyer said, and should get even lower this weekend. A lot of the lack of demand is weather-related, but the bad economy is also playing a part, he said. The company's annual jump in agricultural load from harvesting season won't occur until next fall, and it won't get any spring boost in that sector from irrigation needs because the local area gets enough rainfall that no irrigation is needed, he said. So it's looking like an extended period of low gas throughput until summer heat starts getting intense, he added.

A Gulf Coast trader said the market is "very quiet" this week, primarily because a lot of traders are out on spring break vacations with their kids. Even with demand falling, "we're still not having trouble getting rid of our gas early each day," although the company's traders currently have to make more calls to potential customers than they're getting from the buyers. On a very hot summer day or a cold winter day, it's pretty much a case of taking calls for supply and not having to make any, she said. Texas is "pretty warm" right now, the trader said, but most of the state will be cooling off a bit going into the weekend.

The National Weather Service (NWS) predicts above-normal temperatures during the March 23-27 workweek almost everywhere east of a line running southward through the eastern Dakotas before bulging southwestward through Nebraska to include eastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico and then curving back to the southeast through central Texas. Most of Maine is included in the above-normal forecast, but NWS expects normal conditions in the rest of New England along with northeastern New York and the lower half of the Florida peninsula. The agency looks for below-normal readings everywhere west of a line running southward along Washington state's eastern border before curving to the southwest through central Oregon and northeastern California to approximately the midpoint along California's coast.

The WxRrisk.com forecasting service said its models have backed off the idea of a major blocking pattern over Eastern Canada, "so the eastern U.S. looks much warmer [from the] last week of March into early April."

SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Cameron Horwitz said he expects a 20 Bcf storage withdrawal to be reported for the week ending March 13. Tim Evans of Citi Futures Perspective, who in a forward-looking view earlier had projected a pull of 5 Bcf for the week ending March 27, said in his late Tuesday advisory he now looks for a zero Bcf withdrawal that week.

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