Monday, October 19, 2009

Natural Gas Prices Expected to Rise & Fall & Rise

In the last six weeks natural gas futures prices have jumped from a modern day low to nearly $5 per thousand cubic foot (Mcf) as commodity traders and investors started to cover their short positions in this fuel as the days moved closer to the beginning of the winter heating season. The jump in the gas price ends what has been an extended price slide that started back in summer of 2008 when prices were in excess of $13 per Mcf and early signs of the developing global recession emerged.

The traders and investors who have been covering their negative bets on natural gas prices have been motivated by signs the nascent U.S. economic recovery is gathering strength, especially among sectors such as automobiles and home construction that are large consumers of natural gas and its components as feedstocks for petrochemical materials. Additionally, there was the realization that the ratio of crude oil to natural gas prices, which at one point this summer stood at 27:1 (27.08) in contrast to the inherent energy- value ratio of 6:1, was way out of line historically and certainly unsustainable.

At the start of 2009, the oil-to-gas price ratio stood at slightly under 8:1 (7.94). It subsequently dropped in early January to the low so far for the year of 7:1 (6.79). Since that point the ratio has climbed steadily, reaching its peak on September 3rd. After falling to a recent low of 13.67, the ratio has bounced around due to volatility in both crude oil and natural gas prices, but it seems to be locked into a range of 14 to 15:1. The big question is with winter energy demand about to arrive will cold temperatures drive natural gas prices higher while at the same time crude oil prices remain stable, or possibly weaken further, given the continuing sluggish economic recovery?
When we look at the ratio of crude oil to natural gas prices for the past 15 years, it is interesting to note how the ratio has become more volatile and higher in recent years following almost a dozen years of a relatively stable relationship fluctuating around a 7:1 ratio as shown by the dark blue line from 1994 up until 2006 on the accompanying chart. The most recent years have demonstrated considerably greater price volatility between the two energy fuels. It appears the ratio averaged closer to 11:1 from 2006 through 2008. Volatility in the ratio has exploded in 2009. We have marked the low, high and current ratios with small red lines. It was this volatility and the extreme undervalued nature of natural gas that enticed more and more investors and traders into the commodity trade of the decade, which was to buy natural gas futures while at the same time selling crude oil futures. For significant parts of this year that trade didn’t work, but in recent weeks it has. Part of the success of the trade has been the calendar working against commodity traders who earlier in the year had sold natural gas futures with the expectation that gas prices would continue to fall. If they sold them early enough in the year, then they had profits locked in when natural gas prices started to climb. As time passes, bringing the start of the winter heating demand season closer, the impetus for higher natural gas prices strengthens. As a result, these commodity traders are now covering their short positions by buying near-month natural gas futures adding upward pressure to the gas price.

If one looks at the current prices for physical deliveries of natural gas, there is almost a $1 spread between them and the current November futures price. If we average all the physical gas price points as of October 8th, contained in the Enerfax Daily schedule, it comes to $3.98 per Mcf. This is when the November natural gas futures price traded for $4.96, or a spread of $0.98. This spread is truly reflective of the near-term oversupply situation for natural gas and the optimistic demand outlook associated with the futures price.

The nearly 100 percent increase in natural gas prices since the beginning of September seems counter-intuitive given the industry’s fundamentals. Natural gas storage facilities and pipelines are nearly all at full capacity forcing gas producers to involuntarily shut-in some of their current production. In other words, near-term industry fundamentals suggest the market should be experiencing weaker natural gas prices, which is consistent with the physical gas prices. On the other hand, the intermediate and longer term outlooks for natural gas demand point to higher prices in the future.

The brighter over-the-horizon outlook reflects a universal belief that industrial demand for natural gas will recover with the economy and the recent growth in gas production volumes will slow and eventually reverse as the impact of the significant cutback in gas-focused drilling takes its toll on output.

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