As reported in Wall Street Journal

By
Tim Puko

A repeat of last year’s snowy, Arctic-cold winter is looking a little more likely today. Natural gas traders, still scarred by the memory, are bunkering in.

Buyers have been rushing into the gas market for a week on fears of a sequel to last winter’s Polar Vortex, which walloped the eastern half of the U.S. with brutally cold temperatures from the deep south up to New England. Many spent months dismissing that possibility as simple panic, but now meteorologists are getting more pessimistic.

Both Commodity Weather Group and WeatherBELL Analytics LLC released long-term forecasts this week showing a notably higher risk for a cold December. That was supposed to be relatively mild month this winter, balancing out a cold January and February. Now the whole winter is shaping up to be “pretty nasty,” WeatherBELL said.

That has propelled natural gas to a six-session rally. It’s rebounded nearly 18% since it hit its 2014 low last week. Gains of nearly 3% Tuesday are pushing it near a three-month high.

And traders are all wondering if the winter of 2015 will bring a repeat of 2014.

“I think it’s a reasonable risk,” said Matt Rogers president and meteorologist at Commodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Md. An early season burst of cold starting next week is already “really spooking a lot of people.”

More than half of all U.S. homes use natural gas as their heating fuel, making the natural gas market especially vulnerable to weather. Tepid demand had capped the market for four months and had bankers and investors fearing a glut by the spring. The new forecasts have flipped that script, at least temporarily.

Timothy J. Collins, director at Fairfield Advisors LLC in Madison, N.J., has had to get out of spread bets that depended on falling prices in January, he said. He is now trying to buy into positions that would benefit from rising prices that month, but he still thinks that record production will help balance out the fear of a Polar Vortex repeat, he said.

“I think people are overly sensitive to it,” said Mr. Collins, whose fund manages $35 million. “You know how they say the military is always trying to fight the last war? Well, we keep trading the last position.”

The rally could produce bargains for stock investors, said Jonathan Waghorn, co-portfolio manager at Guinness Atkinson Asset Management Inc. in London. Its $84-million fund holds Chesapeake Energy Corp., QEP Resources Inc. and Ultra Petroleum Corp, among other oil and gas producers that could benefit from rising gas prices balancing out free-falling oil prices.

“Gas is strong, yet the energy equities names are all getting hit,” Mr. Waghorn said. “If you believe the gas story, today’s giving you a good opportunity to pick up some energy names getting smashed by weak oil.”

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