Natural gas prices rose on inventory report, helping producers

Market Realist

Natural gas prices closed up on the week

Natural gas spot prices closed at $3.49 per MMBtu (millions of British thermal units) on August 23—up $0.12 from the prior week, when they closed at $3.37 per MMBtu. The commodity was trading at levels as high as ~$3.80 per MMBtu in mid-July but since then has traded largely downward, as milder summer weather set in (see Warmer weather at summer’s end helped gas, but few catalysts going into autumn for why weather affects natural gas prices).

(Read more: Why ethane stopped trading like crude and started trading like nat gas (part II))

Higher natural gas prices are a positive catalyst for energy stocks—especially domestic independent upstream names whose production largely includes 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 U.S. Natural Gas Fund (UNG), an exchange-traded fund designed to track the price of Henry Hub natural gas (the standard benchmark for domestic natural gas prices). Prices were helped by a smaller-than-expected build in natural gas inventories (please see Smaller-than-expected inventory build supports natural gas prices).

Natural gas prices are low from a long-term perspective

From a long-term historical perspective, natural gas has been trading at low levels over the past few years. Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, natural gas had reached peaks of over $15.00 per MMBtu. Since 2008, 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 United States. Many investors expect natural gas prices to remain relatively depressed, as the development of shale resources has allowed companies to produce natural gas economically at lower prices.

(Read more: 2Q13 earnings calls were positive for Utica Shale investment)

For companies weighted towards natural gas assets and production, prices have an important effect on valuation

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

(Read more: Why you should consider risks before investing in the Utica Shale)

Positive short-term catalyst, but prices remain relatively low

This past week, natural gas prices were up slightly, which was a positive short-term catalyst. However, natural gas still remain depressed, as prices slid throughout May and June. Lastly, from a wider long-term perspective (five years and longer), natural gas prices are relatively low. Fluctuations in natural gas prices most affect natural gas–weighted producers, such as the companies mentioned above (CHK, SWN, CRK, and KWK), and the U.S. Natural Gas Fund ETF (UNG). Investors with such holdings find it prudent to track the price of natural gas.

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