UPDATE 3-U.S. natgas futures end up, near-term cold bolsters prices
* High inventories, record production limit price gains * Warming later this week also keeps buyers cautious By Joe Silha NEW YORK, Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures ended slightly higher on Monday, backed by some technical buying after an early attempt to move lower stalled and as cold Northeast/Midwest weather forecasts for the next few days should underpin demand. "The market is searching for strong directional guidance. This time of the year that guidance will only come from actual temperatures and/or the short-term weather forecast," Energy Management Institute's Dominick Chirichella said in a report. "At the moment neither support a very strong move in either direction," Chirichella added. Front-month gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange ended up 1.4 cents at $3.315 per million British thermal units after trading between $3.259 and $3.354. Despite recent attempts to rally off last week's low in the $3.20 area, many traders remain skeptical of the upside, with inventories relatively high, production at or near a record peak and no sustained cold to put a serious dent in supplies. Commodity Weather Group on Monday said computer models were in better agreement for a warm-dominated six-to-10-day outlook from the Midwest to East, but added that another cold shot was possible for the central United States after that period. Chart traders agreed the technicals still tilted slightly bearish, noting the front contract broke some key support over the last two weeks and has been unable to rally above near resistance at the 40-day moving average in the $3.39-3.40 area. The nearby contract hit a 6-1/2-week high of $3.645 two weeks ago but ended January nearly unchanged after sliding 7.4 percent in the previous two weeks as forecasts trended milder. PRODUCTION FAILS TO SLOW DESPITE RIG DECLINES Baker Hughes data on Friday showed the gas-directed drilling rig count fell last week for the third time in four weeks, dropping by six to 428. While the gas rig count is hovering not far above the 13-1/2-year low of 413 hit three months ago, production has shown no significant sign of slowing. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that marketed gas output in 2013 will hit a record high for the third straight year. STORAGE DRAW FALLS SHORT EIA data last week showed that gas inventories for the week ended Jan. 25 fell by 194 billion cubic feet to 2.802 trillion cubic feet. Most traders viewed the decline as slightly bearish, noting it was the first time in five weeks that the weekly withdrawal had fallen short of market expectations. The draw widened the deficit relative to last year by 45 bcf to 202 bcf, or 7 percent below last year's record highs for that time. It also trimmed 16 bcf from the overhang versus the five-year average, but traders noted that storage was still relatively high at 304 bcf, or 12 percent, above that benchmark. Withdrawal estimates for Thursday's inventory report range from 126 bcf to 162 bcf. That would be well above the 94 bcf pulled from storage during the same week in 2012, but likely below the five-year average decline for that week of 165 bcf. If drawdowns for the rest of winter match the five-year average, inventories will end March at 2.032 tcf, about 18 percent above normal, but 18 percent below last year, when stocks finished a mild heating season at a record-high 2.48 tcf.