The outlook for potash prices has taken a ‘cautiously’ optimistic turn
Rio Tinto (‘Rio’, NYS: RIO) has decided to proceed with its plans to build a potash mine. The Australian Rio will work with its Canadian joint venture partner North Atlantic Potash company (an Acron Group subsidiary) to develop the Albany Project using solution mining. The Albany deposit is said to hold inferred resources of 1.4 billion tons at an average grade of 31% KCl with about 30% recoverability. Rio Tinto’s entry into the North American potash industry has added more pressure on what seems to be an already oversupplied sector. In 2013, BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) decided to build what will be the world’s largest potash mine; that project alone threatens to break the model preferred by CANPOTEX (the pricing consortium that includes PotashCorp, Agrium and Mosaic), which relies on regulating supply to sustain price rather than compete on the basis of lower prices.
The CANPOTEX companies may become victims of their own pricing mechanism, having shown the world just what kind of high margins are possible in the potash market. It should be no surprise that the world’s mining giants have wanted to claim their own stake in the potash industry. Nevertheless, the added pressure and the dissolution of BPC, the Russian/Belarusian equivalent of CANPOTEX, have not done much harm to PotashCorp’s stock price. Indeed, shares of PotashCorp (NYSE: POT) have rebounded to the high USD$ 30’s and low 40’s in June, which is exactly what they were on the day before Belaruskali and Uralkali ended the BPC pricing mechanism on July 30, 2013. Therefore, many potash investors might be, rightly, wondering how Rio Tinto’s entry into the potash market will affect the potash sector.
Rio Tinto has entered the potash market but its total capacity is in the order of five or four times lower than BHP Billiton or PotashCorp itself. However, BHP (ASX, NYSE: BHP | LON: BLT) has shown signs that it is not yet fully committed to the massive CAD$ 12 billion Jansen potash mine because, even while this would make BHP one of the world’s main potash producers, on June 25, it reportedly relinquished an exclusivity agreement with the Port of Vancouver claiming it is “evaluating alternative rail and port options in Canada and the US”. In fact, BHP, as noted by CEO Andrew Mackenzie himself, is large enough a company that it can afford to keep potash as an ‘option’. BHP’s strategy is to make sure it has a foothold in the sector, having already invested about a billion dollars, even as it focuses on what it calls its four ‘pillars’: iron ore, copper, coal and petroleum.
Potash is a ‘would-be’ fifth pillar, a welcome option but not a priority. Mackenzie reiterated that BHP’s motivations for entering the potash sector in the first place has not changed: “growth will be driven by a rising population in and greater economic prosperity, which will change the patterns of food consumption, requiring higher yields from increasingly constrained arable land”. In other words, BHP’s potash entry is a hedge strategy. However, BHP and Rio Tinto can afford to play this ‘game’ because they can still bank on potash’s large margins while compensating for any loss or lower prices while earning significant profits from their other commodities, which are also in high demand. Where PotashCorp and the other current big producers have some margin is not that BHP nor would Rio Tinto, even if they decided to commit fully to their potash properties, need a few years before reaching production stage, allowing the market to ignore the extra supply for some time.
The threat to prices, if any, is still emanating from Russia and Belarus, which maintain close ties to Chinese companies and which could be used as tools in the commodity wars – oil & gas – related to the standoff between the West and Russia. For the time being, the Russian Uralkali has decided to support higher prices by applying an 8% cut in production, which means that for the time being prices should not fall and may even rise. PotashCorp, for its part, has decided to continue production at its mine in New Brunswick, which had been slated to shut down. In this optimistic scenario, PotashCorp also noted that it made record shipments of potash – by tonnage – in the first half of 2014. Evidently, the lower prices for the natural fertilizer have helped to widen the customer base. More and more farmers around the world are demanding potash; therefore the increased capacity should easily find a market when it comes online. This is good news for all of the junior potash projects heading toward production stage such as Allana Potash with its Danakhil Project in Ethiopia (TSX: AAA | OTCQX: ALLRF) or IC Potash’s Ochoa Project (‘ICP’, TSX: ICP | OTCQX: ICPTF) in New Mexico. Yet, the various uncertainties about the new large projects will keep the longer term pricing focus on the timing and possible revisions of the giant mining firms and legacy potash plays.
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