UPDATE 3-Mild forecast pressures US Feb natgas futures at expiry

Tue Jan 29, 2013 3:42pm EST

* Charts turn bearish after Monday's close below support
    * High storage, production also weigh on prices


    By Joe Silha
    NEW YORK, Jan 29 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures ended
lower on Tuesday, with milder Northeast and Midwest weather
forecasts this week driving the front-month February contract
lower at expiration.
    The front contract, which hit a 6-1/2-week high of $3.645
early last week, lost 9.5 percent in the last six sessions as
U.S. temperatures moderated. That marks the biggest six-day
slide for front futures in nearly seven weeks.
    Traders have mostly shrugged off the brief cold shot
expected later this week and early next week, focusing instead
on concerns that the back half of winter may not turn out cold
enough to whittle down excess supplies.
    "The forecasts are turning pretty warm, which is going to
mean more gas left in inventory at the end of winter. If the
outlook doesn't change (turn colder) soon, prices could break
below $3 again," a Texas-based producer said.
    Front-month February gas futures on the New York
Mercantile Exchange expired down 6.3 cents, or 1.9 percent, at
$3.226 per million British thermal units after trading in a
fairly narrow range between $3.207 and $3.275.
    Technical traders on Monday noted front futures gapped lower
and closed below the 100-day moving average in the $3.40 area, a
possible bearish sign that could set the stage for a test of
next support at the 2013 low of $3.05 hit earlier this month.
The 200-day moving average lies just below that at $3.01.
    In its Tuesday report, MDA Weather Services noted that both
the six-to-10-day and 11-to-15-day forecasts continued to trend
warmer, with computer models in good agreement about the
outlook.
    Many traders remain skeptical of any upside in prices until
much colder weather arrives, with inventories still relatively
high and production flowing at or near a record pace.

    BIG STORAGE DRAW FAILS TO FIRM PRICES
    While weekly inventory withdrawals have topped market
expectations for four straight weeks, traders noted that stocks
are still high at 320 billion cubic feet (bcf), or 12 percent,
above the five-year average.
    
    Early withdrawal estimates for Thursday's inventory report
range from 197 to 221 bcf. That would be well above the 149 bcf
drawn from inventory during the same week last year and the
five-year average decline of 178 bcf for that week.    
    If drawdowns for the rest of winter match the five-year
average, inventories will end March at 2.048 tcf, about 18
percent above normal but 17 percent below last year, when stocks
finished a very mild heating season at a record-high 2.48 tcf.  
    
    
    GAS RIG COUNT GAINS, FIRST TIME IN 3 WEEKS
    The Baker Hughes gas-directed drilling rig count
gained last week for the first time in three weeks.
    The overall count at 434 is not far above the 13-1/2-year
low of 413 posted in early November, but so far production has
shown no significant sign of slowing. 
    
    The Energy Information Administration estimates that gas
output in 2013 will hit a record high for the third straight
year.
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