Winter temperatures below seasonal norms in the northern hemisphere have created a rally in natural gas prices from Asia to Europe. The spot liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices in north Asia jumped to record highs last week, while the key price marker in Europe, the Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF), rallied to the highest in more than two years.
The natural gas markets at the start of 2021 look completely different from the beginning of last year, when milder weather and the pandemic hit to demand had dragged natural gas prices down to historic lows.
This winter season, a rebound in Asian natural gas demand, supply issues at major LNG exporters, logistics issues at the Panama Channel, soaring tanker rates, and last but not least, the cold snap from Madrid to Tokyo, are pushing gas prices higher.
Even when temperatures return to seasonal norms in coming weeks and the Polar Vortex-induced cold spells in Europe end, natural gas prices will continue to be supported through the spring and summer, as buyers would look to restock, analysts say.
The record-high Asian LNG prices may not last for long, but these generally higher prices than last year’s lows are set to support the prices in Europe, which is likely to receive fewer LNG cargoes this winter considering that spot prices in Asia are much, much higher.
In just two months, the global natural gas market turned from an oversupplied or a finely balanced market at best, into a tightening market, leading to hikes in prices from Asia to Europe. The much higher prices in Asia and Europe than the U.S. benchmark Henry Hub will incentivize U.S. LNG spot sales to those markets and the maximizing of U.S. liquefaction capacity, according to analysts.
Spot LNG prices in Asia have staged an impressive rally over the past two months and have now soared 18 times from April 2020 lows—and the surge is obliterating even the recent rally in Bitcoin prices.
A perfect storm of unusually cold winter in north Asia, outages at major LNG exporters, and logistical and shipping constraints drove the price of Asia’s LNG benchmark, the Japan-Korea Marker (JKM), to the highest on record last week, soaring over $30 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) for the first time.
In Spain, home of one of Europe’s biggest terminals, LNG prices also surged amid an unusual cold snap in the country, which brought a rare snowfall in Madrid.
The lower-than-normal temperatures in many parts of Europe are driving higher gas withdrawals than usual, setting the stage for higher-than-expected demand through the spring and summer for replenishing stocks.
Goldman Sachs expects a “perfect bullish storm” for natural gas prices this year, and raised its forecasts for the prices at the European benchmark, the Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF), to $8.30/MMBtu for the rest of this winter, from $6.65/MMBtu expected earlier. Goldman also lifted its spot Asia LNG price outlook to $14.30/MMBtu from $12.65/MMBtu.
“The current cold spell in the northern hemisphere is paving the way for a tighter global gas market throughout the year,” Wood Mackenzie said last week in its 2021 gas market outlook.
After the impressive surge, Asian LNG spot prices will drop in the second quarter, but the current cold spell is setting the stage for an increasingly tight summer gas market, compared to what looked like a finely balanced summer just a month ago, WoodMac says.
Gas storage levels in Europe are already more than 15 billion cubic meters lower than last year and are now close to the past five-year average. Forecasts of higher coal and European carbon prices, also partially driven by the current cold spell, “provide headroom for higher European summer gas demand,” the consultancy noted.
“Global prices reached record lows in 2020, with TTF averaging US$3.2/mmbtu and Asian LNG spot averaging US$3.9/mmbtu. 2021 will show a stark difference, we anticipate TTF averaging US$5.6/mmbtu and Asian LNG spot averaging US$7.6/mmbtu,” said Wood Mackenzie vice president Massimo Di Odoardo.
The surge in Asian spot LNG prices is good news for U.S. exporters.
The wide spread between Asia’s LNG prices and Henry Hub suggests there is “very little chance” of seeing U.S. LNG cargo cancellations—as in the summer of 2020—anytime soon, Warren Patterson, ING’s Head of Commodities Strategy, said in the bank’s Energy Outlook 2021.
“Regional gas markets will be better supported over 2021, and it looks increasingly unlikely that we will see a repeat of cargo cancellations this year,” Patterson added.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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