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U.S. Natural Gas Prices Stay Low Amid Mild Spring Demand

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The U.S. Energy Department's weekly inventory release showed an as-expected increase in natural gas supplies. However, the injection was higher than the five-year average as the mild spring weather continues to limit heating and air conditioning demand.

Analysis: In-Line Rise in Storage

Stockpiles held in underground storage in the lower 48 states rose by 85 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ended May 3, matching the guidance as per the analysts surveyed by S&P Global Platts. However, the increase was higher than the five-year (2014-2018) average net injection of 72 Bcf, while the reported week saw a similar increase last year.

Following past week’s supply addition, at 1.547 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), natural gas inventories are 303 Bcf (16.4%) under the five-year average but 128 Bcf (9%) above the year-ago figure.

Fundamentally speaking, total supply of natural gas averaged around 94.4 Bcf per day, essentially unchanged on a weekly basis as dry production remained flat. Meanwhile, daily consumption fell 1.8% to 76 Bcf primarily due to weaker residential/commercial demand with temperatures falling back to normal territory.

Natural Gas Futures Struggle to Reach $3

While natural gas futures have edged up a bit from the 3-year lows of below $2.5 per MMBtu in April and currently trade around $2.6 per MMBtu, it’s still 47% below the four-year high of $4.929 per MMBtu reached in mid-November. The early onset of winter, together with the lowest level of stocks in 15 years, demand from power plants and growing LNG shipments lifted the commodity to almost $5 per MMBtu. But the euphoria didn’t last long as a mild weather led to smaller withdrawals that markedly reduced the storage deficit and sent prices lower.

What is the Future of Natural Gas Prices?

The fundamentals of natural gas consumption continue to be favorable. The demand for cleaner fuels and the commodity’s relatively lower price has catapulted natural gas' share of domestic electricity generation to 35%, from 25% in 2011. Moreover, new pipelines to Mexico, together with large-scale liquefied gas export facilities have meant that exports out of the U.S. are set for a quantum leap. Finally, higher consumption from industrial projects will likely ensure strong natural gas demand. 

However, record high production in the United States and expectations for explosive growth through 2020 means that supply will keep pace with demand. Therefore, prices are likely to trade sideways but for weather-driven movements. Also, with the traditional withdrawal season (when supplies fall on heating demand due to cold weather) having ended in March, consumption is likely to decline in the near term.

Want to Own a Natural Gas Stock Now?

The uncertain natural gas fundamentals (considering its seasonal nature) is responsible for the understandable reluctance on investors’ part to dip their feet into these stocks.

Moreover, most natural gas-heavy upstream companies like Gulfport Energy Corp. (GPOR - Free Report) , Antero Resources (AR - Free Report) , Chesapeake Energy Corp. , SilverBow Resources, Inc. (SBOW - Free Report) , Southwestern Energy Company (SWN - Free Report) etc. carry a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold), which means that investors should preferably wait for a better entry point before buying shares in them.

If you are looking for near-term natural gas play, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (COG - Free Report) might be a good selection. The company has a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy).

You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here.

This Houston, TX-headquartered company’s expected EPS growth rate for three to five years currently stands at 35%, comparing favorably with the industry's growth rate of 18.8%.

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