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Cold snap and lower inventories boosted natural gas prices last week

2013.03.04 - Nat gas prices STEnlarge Graph

  • Natural gas prices moved up $0.17/MMBtu on the week, resulting in a short-term positive catalyst for natural gas prices and natural gas producers.
  • From a medium-term perspective natural gas has been range-bound for the past several months, with fluctuations largely driven by changing expectations in weather.
  • From a long-term perspective, despite a rally in natural gas from 2Q12 to 4Q12, gas prices are still near historic lows as a large increase in supply over the past few years driven by the shale boom has struggled to find sufficient demand outlets.

Natural gas spot prices closed at $3.47/MMBtu (millions of British thermal units) on 3/1/13, up $0.17 from the prior week, the second week in a row that gas prices have rallied. Higher natural gas prices are a positive catalyst for energy stocks, especially domestic independent upstream names with a large proportion of production comprised of natural gas such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Southwestern Energy (SWN), Comstock Resources (CRK), and Quicksilver Resources (KWK). Higher natural gas price movement is also positive for the US Natural Gas Fund (UNG), an ETF designed to track the price of Henry Hub natural gas (the standard benchmark for domestic natural gas prices). Last week’s higher prices were largely driven by expectations of colder than normal temperatures in the near-term and a larger than normal drop in natural gas inventories.

Over the past few months, natural gas prices have been largely range-bound between $3.15/MMBtu and $3.50/MMBtu with much of the fluctuation due to changing winter weather expectations. Prior to that, natural gas prices had experienced upward momentum since 2Q12 lows (see chart above), with possible factors being announced supply cuts by producers, a hotter than normal summer, and coal-to-gas switching (see “Coal-to-gas switching is positive for natural gas prices and natural gas producers” for more on this topic).

However, in the context of a longer time frame (see chart below), natural gas is still near historic lows. Over the past several years, a large amount of natural gas supply has come online without an equivalent increase in demand due to the discovery and development of large natural gas shale resources in the US. Many expect natural gas prices to remain relatively depressed as the development of the shale resources has allowed natural gas to be produced economically at lower prices.

2013.03.04 - Nat gas prices LTEnlarge Graph

Market participants and upstream energy companies monitor natural gas prices as lower prices translate into lower revenues, and therefore lower margins and valuation for natural gas producers. The below chart shows natural gas prices plotted against CHK’s and KWK’s stock price over time on a percentage change basis, and it appears that the companies’ valuation has tracked the price of natural gas quite closely.

2013.03.04 - Nat gas vs CHK vs KWKEnlarge Graph

Last week saw a move up in prices which is a positive short-term catalyst. This most positively affects natural gas weighted producers such as the ones mentioned above (CHK, SWN, CRK, and KWK) and the US Natural Gas Fund ETF (UNG) and investors with such holdings find it prudent to track the price of natural gas.