The break-up of one of the world’s two big potash cartels has spawned much speculation about the future of BHP Billiton’s (NYSE: BHP) Jansen project in Saskatchewan, with a report from analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch arguing that acquiring existing potash producer Mosaic (NYSE: MOS) might make more sense than proceeding with the US$14-15 billion greenfield project. “Mosaic could provide instant critical scale via a large scale, low cost, long-life asset,” the analysts wrote in an Aug. 5 research report.
But others argue that the most likely scenario in the short term is that BHP will defer a decision on the project until there is greater clarity about the potash market.
“The potential material changes in the potash market from price-over-volume to the opposite may cause BHP to rethink plans,” London-based Tony Robson of BMO Capital Markets wrote in a note to clients on Aug. 4. “BMO Research sees BHP’s best way forward is simply to put Jansen on permanent deferral, until the supply-demand-price equation becomes clearer, and return cash to shareholders.”
The surprise announcement on June 30 that Russia’s Uralkali (LSE: URKA) will quit the European potash cartel sent shock waves through the industry and caused the share prices of the world’s biggest public potash companies to drop precipitously, including Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (TSX: POT; NYSE: POT), Mosaic, Agrium (TSX: AGU; NYSE: AGU), and Intrepid Potash (NYSE: IPI).
PotashCorp, Mosaic, and Agrium make up Canpotex, the other major global potash cartel. Together the two cartels control more than 70% of the world’s potash production.
Until now the European potash cartel — Belarus Potash Co., or BPC — was made up of Uralkali and Belaruskali, a Belarusian company. Uralkali apparently decided to abandon the cartel after a Belarusian presidential decree late last year enabled Belaruskali to market its potash outside of BPC.
BPC and Canpotex had supported each other’s efforts to keep prices strong and settle deals at similar prices.
Investec Securities’ analysts Tim Gerrard and Hunter Hillcoat point out that while news of the recent cartel break-up “will have a bearing on BHP Billiton’s decision making,” it was “never BHP’s intention to be part of these cartels. BHP Billiton was a firm proponent of an open market mechanism for potash pricing, in the manner in which it has pushed the iron ore market, and indeed all of its products.”
As further evidence they point to the Canadian government’s decision in 2010 to block BHP’s US$40-billion bid to acquire PotashCorp on the grounds of national interest. “It was thought at the time that this was partly influenced by BHP Billiton’s intention to exit Canpotex, with the Saskatchewan government concerned that the breakup of Canpotex would likely result in lower tax revenues,” they write. “In fact Canada’s Industry Minister stated that he was not convinced that BHP Billiton’s ‘plans to market potash would enhance Canada’s already prosperous position to compete internationally.’”
The analysts estimate that until now the “effective duopoly” of the cartels has allowed PotashCorp over the last six years to maintain an average gross operating margin of about 66%.
Sid Rajeev, head of research at Fundamental Research Corp., said a spokesperson at Uralkali forecast that its decision to leave the cartel could cause potash prices to drop below US$300 per tonne due to increased supply.
“Uralkali, being one of the lowest cost producers globally, is hoping that they should be able to increase profits, even if potash prices drop, by increasing production,” Rajeev writes in a research note. “The Russian company has stated that they plan to increase production from the current rate of 10 million tonnes of potash per year, up to 13 million tonnes of potash per year. Uralkali currently holds approximately 20% of the global market share of potash supply.”
Like BMO’s Robson, Investec’s Gerrard and Hillcoat reason that BHP may defer development of the project but retain an option on it, and expect the miner will “commit to a minimum level of capital expenditure (US$200-$400 million p.a.), enabling it to continue pre-approval work, but deferring any development decision.”
Many speculate that Uralkali might be bluffing in order to force Belaruskali into an agreement. “It remains unclear what the final outcome will be, but Uralkali has stated that future cooperation on a mutually beneficial basis is not completely out of the picture yet,” Rajeev notes.
That view is shared by Gerrard and Hillcoat of Investec. “There may be an element of gamesmanship in all this,” they say, “with the Uralkali CEO himself suggesting that potash pricing will fall by US$100/t to US$300/t. Nevertheless, it does appear to present downside risk for pricing in the near term, an issue that may bear on BHP Billiton’s immediate decision-making.”
The industry will have to wait until Aug. 20 for more insight into BHP’s thinking on Jansen, when the company is scheduled to update the market and announces its full-year financial results.
So far, BHP has spent roughly US$2 billion on the potash project, including acquisition costs. If the project, 140 km east of Saskatoon, eventually becomes a mine, at full capacity it is expected to produce around 8 million tonnes of potash a year, and would have a mine life of 70 years.
In a 32-page research report published in October 2012 called: “BHP’s Potash Ambitions: No Easy Choices,” analysts at BMO Capital Markets concluded that based on a supply-demand analysis, “the world does not need Jansen’s capacity for at least another decade.” The report also estimated that in order for Jansen to generate an internal rate of return of between 12% and 15%, long-term potash prices would have to be within the US$600-$675 per tonne FOB Vancouver range.
With a US$14-15 billion sticker price, the BMO analysts describe Jansen as “the largest and highest-cost greenfield among the dozens being considered,” and attribute the project’s high cost primarily to the fact that it lies about 1,000 metres below surface and that there are about 200 metres of aquifers between the surface and the deposit, which “requires an extensive process to freeze the ground, drill the shafts, and line the shafts with steel to protect against potential water inflow.”
In remarks to journalists in Melbourne on Aug. 7, BHP’s chief executive Andrew Mackenzie said the company’s management thinks “very long term.”
“This is something that’s happened short term,” Mackenzie continued. “We’ve always said that potash is a business which will lose some of its cartel-like structure and become in time globally traded like everything else, so we, to some extent, predicted what’s happened.”
In an emailed response to questions from The Northern Miner, spokeswoman Bronwyn Wilkinson said BHP had no comment to make on developments in the potash industry beyond what Mackenzie told reporters earlier in the week, and declined to comment on market speculation or on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch report’s remarks on the possibility of an acquisition of Mosaic.
She said work continues at Jansen, where the shaft excavation process is well underway and the company continues to work to finalize the engineering design studies necessary to present the project’s feasibility study to the board for approval. “We have not given a timeline for when we will be ready to take the project to the board for approval, however the feasibility study is a substantial body of work.”
“While we conduct the final engineering and the project’s feasibility study, we continue to prepare the site, continue the shaft excavation and build the construction workforce camp site,” she wrote, adding that the boring machine for the production shaft has been commissioned and has started operating, and that the freeze program is continuing on both shafts “and has worked very well.”
Wilkinson estimated that about 380 people are working at the site.
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