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Natural-Gas Futures Spike in Latest Market Turmoil

By 2022-01-28 No Comments

Some climb in natural-gas futures isn’t unusual for this time of year, when traders wager on the severity of winter weather.
Photo: MEGAN JELINGER/REUTERS

A wild spike in expiring natural-gas futures contracts on Thursday afternoon was the latest bout of extraordinary volatility that has whipsawed financial markets to start the year.

Natural-gas futures for February delivery settled 46% higher, at $6.256 per million British thermal units, the largest one-day gain on record. More heavily traded futures for March delivery ended the day up 8.1% at $4.363.

Futures…

A wild spike in expiring natural-gas futures contracts on Thursday afternoon was the latest bout of extraordinary volatility that has whipsawed financial markets to start the year.

Natural-gas futures for February delivery settled 46% higher, at $6.256 per million British thermal units, the largest one-day gain on record. More heavily traded futures for March delivery ended the day up 8.1% at $4.363.

Futures for more distant deliveries moved similarly to March contracts in a rise that isn’t unusual for this time of year, when traders wager on the severity of winter weather and the demand it will create for the heating and electricity-generation fuel. 

Forecasts monitored by traders on Thursday were revised lower for early February, signaling greater demand beyond the storm that is expected to freeze much of the country this weekend. 

At one point, late in the trading session, February futures jumped to nearly $7.35 before crashing back down and rising again to the closing price. Moves throughout the day were so sharp that trading was paused a dozen times by circuit breakers aimed at maintaining orderly trading, exchange operator
CME
Group Inc. 

“This market worked as designed,” CME said in a statement. 

The timing and sharpness of the February futures’ spike—and the relatively small number of trades involved—suggests speculators trapped in wrong-way bets on the direction of fuel prices raced to buy futures at the 11th hour to settle trades. Known as a short squeeze, the situation can produce sharp gains with little connection to market fundamentals. 

In a note to clients, Ritterbusch & Associates said that speculators clawing out of short positions “accentuated what would normally be a modest price hike.” The oil-and-gas trading firm told clients that it believed prices would fall as winter passed without significant declines in domestic stockpiles and advised them against piling into Thursday’s rally. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Thursday that gas stockpiles ended last week nearly 11% lower than last year, though just 1% short of the five-year average inventories. 

The need to power air conditioners through some of the hottest weather on record this summer—and record volumes of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, shipped to overseas buyers—drove natural-gas prices to their highest levels in years, sparking worry about shortages and price jumps if winter turned out unusually cold. 

When the heating season began in autumn, prices were higher than they had been since frackers flooded the market with shale gas a decade ago. Warm weather continued into autumn, though, and prices have generally declined since hitting $6.31 since early October.

Prices remain much higher in Europe because of low supplies and concerns that Russian exports could be shut off if tensions escalate along the border with Ukraine, through which the European Union receives about 40% of its gas. Though U.S. LNG export facilities have been operating near capacity and are unable to ship much more gas across the Atlantic, U.S. officials have been working with counterparts in Europe to secure energy supplies from elsewhere. 

Write to Ryan Dezember at [email protected]

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