It’s a face off between China and India on one side and the world’s potash fertilizer producers, led by Potash of Saskatchewan (POT), on the other.
India and China have delayed regular shipments of potash fertilizer since long-term contracts expired on June 30 and March 31, respectively. That has left Asia’s two biggest consumers of fertilizer without new deliveries since the end of the third quarter and has left farmers to either buy from stockpiles or to skip applications entirely.
Negotiations with India have begun with talks with China likely in January or February. The two countries are looking for a reduction from the $490 a metric ton (India) and $470 a metric ton (China) that they paid in their last contracts. The goal, analysts say, might be a price of $400 to $430 a metric ton. Potash hit a high of $800 a metric ton in 2009.
For their part, potash producers—a concentrated group with just seven companies essentially controlling global supply—are determined to protect current prices. Some producers have reduced production in order to support prices. Potash of Saskatchewan, for example, idled four mines for eight weeks in October and November. Uralkali, the Russian company that is the world’s largest potash company by volume, plans to cut output in half between December and March.
Negotiations could drag on for a while. India still has 700,000 tons of potash in its stockpiles and that’s enough to meet demand until March. At recent rates India would then need to import 3 million to 3.5 million tons of potash to get the country’s farmers through the year.
The decisive factor, at least as far as India goes, may be a government review of fertilizer subsidies promised for March.
And it’s almost certain that India won’t agree to a deal until after that review.
In a presentation at the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global Industries conference on December 15, Potash of Saskatchewan (POT) offered a modestly optimistic view on potash fertilizer demand for 2011—and a very bullish view for global agriculture.
The company affirmed its guidance for 2011 of sales of 9.3 million metric tons. That’s roughly at the low end of Merrill’s projected global demand of 55 to 60 million metric tons in 2011.
The company said that it had seen a strong fall season in North America and believed that most of the fertilizer it sold went directly onto fields rather than into inventories. That should produce strong sales in the spring application season in 2011.
In China inventory draw down has been completed and the company expects consumption in 2011 to return to the 11 million metric ton level that the industry saw before the global economic crisis.
Nothing has convinced the company that it needs to invest in a new Greenfield potash mine. With current capacity, Potash can produce 12 million metric tons and expansions of existing capacity would take that up to 17.1 million tons by 2015. To justify a Greenfield project, Potash said it would need to see roughly a doubling of prices from the third quarter levels.
That should be reassuring to competitors who are building Greenfield mines or expanding existing sites.
Potash was actually much more bullish on global agriculture in general than it was on its own markets. Read more
And the biggest winner from Argentina’s huge natural gas from shale discovery in Patagonia?
YPF Sociedad Anonima (YPF) is certainly a winner. The find of 4.5 trillion cubic feet of gas is roughly double the Argentine company’s previous proved natural gas reserves of 2.7 trillion cubic feet. YPF already produces some natural gas from four wells at the Loma La Lata field with a daily output of 100,000 cubic meters.
Repsol YPF (REP), the Spanish oil and gas company that controls YPF, is certainly a winner. Media reports, unconfirmed by either company say the find could hold as much as 250 trillion cubic feet of gas. By contrast Argentina’s proved natural gas reserves before the find totaled 12 to 13 trillion cubic feet. (“Proved” is a much more meaningful measure than “reported in the newspaper,” I’d note.) Repsol is planning to sell 15% of YPF in a public offering.
But the biggest winner might actually be Vale (VALE). The Brazilian iron ore giant is moving to become the biggest fertilizer producer in Brazil and it’s new $4.3 billion Rio Colorado project sits in the neighboring Argentine province of Mendoza. To mine potash there Vale needs natural gas, lots of it, and until this find it looked like it was going to have to battle a tight Argentine natural gas market to get the supplies it needed or import it from somewhere. The alternative sources were all either politically iffy or likely to be very expensive. The Rio Colorado project is scheduled to begin production in the second half of 2013 with initial production capacity of 2.4 million tons and the potential for 4.4 million tons.
It’s clear now how Vale will find the gas it needs. (And in retrospect I doubt this find comes as a surprise to Vale. We are talking about a mining company that’s pretty good at assessing future resource potential.) Vale will invest $150 million along with YPF to begin developing the find with half of natural gas production going to Vale.
This is the second big deal that Vale has signed to secure infrastructure for the Rio Colorado mine. Read more
Whoops! USDA has to eat its optimistic projections from September 30 on corn crop and sets off commodity surge
It looks like the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been completely wrong-footed by the U.S. corn crop. And that has sent agriculture stocks soaring today, October 8.
Just a few months ago the USDA was projecting a record crop. Just a couple of weeks ago on September 30, the agency projected corn production of 13.16 billion bushels on a near record yield of 162.5 bushels an acre.
On October 8 shockingly lower projections completely reversed the shocking higher estimates issued by the USDA on September 30.
The USDA is now projecting final corn production of 12.664 billion bushels and a yield of 155.8 bushels per acre. Analysts have been arguing that September’s USDA projections were too high given conditions in the field, but even those analysts were projecting a yield of 159.9 bushels per acre. Last year set a record yield at 164.7 bushels an acre.
The revisions to the supply/demand picture were big enough to move the commodity and stock markets. The USDA is now calling for an end of the year corn inventory of just 902 million bushels. That more than 19% below the September estimate of 1.116 billion bushels for year-end inventory. Ending corn inventory for 2009-2010 stood at 1.6708 billion bushels.
Stocks moving up on the news include Mosaic (MOS) and Agrium (AGU) in the fertilizer group, seed companies Monsanto (MON) and Syngenta (SYT) and farm equipment makers Deere (DE) and AGCO (AGCO).
This week or next will see a bid from China for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (POT), Canada’s Globe and Mail is reporting.
The newspaper’s sources say Beijing is now deciding which of the proposed bids from China’s state-owned companies it should back. Pending Chinese national holidays beginning on October 1 argue for a decision this week or next.
Among the Chinese companies interested in topping the $38.6 billion bid by Australia’s BHP Billiton (BHP) for the Canadian fertilizer company are, according to the Globe and Mail, the state-owned chemical group Sinochem, which has proposed paying as much as $60 billion, and China Blue Chemical, a division of China National Offshore Oil Corp.
A Chinese bid has become more likely in recent weeks, in my opinion, as news reports have confirmed China’s swing this year to a corn importer from previous self-sufficiency in corn, and as the price of corn has climbed to $5 a bushel on forecasts of a slightly smaller harvest in the United States. Read more