Ending the streak of losing sessions at two, natural gas futures held on to an early advance Wednesday as light short-covering buoyed the market on expiration day. The February contract completed its tenure as Nymex prompt month at $5.775, up 5.9 cents for the session, but down 46.8 cents since its debut as the spot contract a month ago.

As has been the case for much of January, traders Wednesday found themselves caught between bullish weather forecasts and bearish storage data. “We saw another choppy, thinly traded expiration day,” commented a Washington DC-based broker.

However, some market-watchers were expecting a little bit more of a buying boost following a two-day, 35-cent price decline. A gap-higher open corroborated that view as prices quickly moved toward the $6.00 level. However, bulls lacked the leadership, and the February contract went off the board unable to fill in a previous chart gap up to $5.96.

Looking ahead, traders are eager to see how the March contract fares when it officially becomes the prompt contract at 10 a.m. EST Thursday. While March may be considered a spring month that “goes out like a lamb,” it remains a withdrawal month for natural gas storage and thus is grouped in with the five-month winter strip. It finished Wednesday’s session at $5.74, up an impressive 8.4 cents for the day.

Bulls would like to keep the upward momentum going Thursday and are banking on a large storage withdrawal in the Energy Information Administration’s weekly report at 10:30 a.m. EST. Withdrawal expectations are stacking up in the 170-190 Bcf area, versus a year-ago draw of 247 Bcf, and a five-year average of 165 Bcf. Last week, the market dumped 32 cents on the news that a 156 Bcf was pulled from the ground during the week ending Jan. 16.

One possible explanation for the string of lower than expected storage withdrawals is the fact that the Midwest has largely been spared from the real Arctic chill pervading the East Coast. “The Northeast is not the same wellspring of natural gas demand as the Midwest,” the broker said. “Illinois, Indiana, Michigan… when those states get cold, that is when you really see the large withdrawals.”

With heating degree day accumulations 8% more (colder) than normal last week, the Upper Midwest paled in comparison to the 20% departure notched by the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. This week exhibits the same disconnect. While the Northeast is expected to see a 10% increase in heating degree day accumulations, the Upper Midwest is forecast to experience heating degree day totals nearly 10% below average.

However, that may be changing as the latest round of intermediate-run forecasts call for chilly temperatures in both the Upper Midwest and the Northeast for the first part of February. “That will put the degree day accumulations in the places that count,” the broker noted.

That being said, she is cautiously bullish on March futures. “End-user demand is next to nothing right now, but they are starting to plan their upcoming purchases for the spring and summer. All they need are prices near the $5.00 mark to get them back in the market,” she said noting there is a natural price floor at $5.00 and an absolute price floor at $4.00.

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