'Like Saudi Leaving OPEC': Russians Ditch Potash Cartel

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/31/2013 02:26:00 PM
Potash Corp of Saskatchewan Share Price
Fertilizer may not be the sexiest of industries, but make no mistake: Given its widespread agricultural applications which span virtually the entire globe, nearly every nation with such industries need the stuff. In the past few years, a duopoly has emerged between Russian/Belarusian firms on one hand and US/Canadian firms on the other represented by BPC and Canoptex, respectively. Until recently, both were actually successful in cornering the global market and jacking up prices. However, with the Russian BPC partner Uralkali defecting from its Belarusian one, commodity markets for potash have been rocked hard:
Russia's Uralkali quit one of the world's two big potash cartels on Tuesday, heralding a price war for the key crop nutrient and pummeling the shares of companies that produce it. The break-up of the Belarusian Potash Company (BPC), a joint venture with Belarussian partner Belaruskali, leaves North America's Canpotex as the dominant potash export venture.

It could lead to cancellations of projects by rivals as the industry weighs the effect of lower prices, but may bring better deals for farmers. "It is as if Saudi Arabia decided to leave OPEC - oil prices would fall immediately," said Dmitry Ryzhkov, equity sales trader at Renaissance Capital. In negotiations with big buyers like India and China, BPC and Canpotex usually settled for deals at similar prices, and they had no qualms about turning off the supply spigot when the buyers looked likely to gain the upper hand. Together the two accounted for almost 70 percent of global potash sales.
Divvy up two-thirds of the global market and the world's your oyster. Alike in a "stag hunt" game, though, the defection of a major player from the cartelized duopoly is wreaking havoc on the expected profits of the would-be profiteers as the fallout from Russia reaches Canada and the US:
That clubby system is now under threat after a falling out between BPC's members. Uralkali promised to bolster production and sales, even as potash prices are already in decline. U.S.-listed shares of the Canpotex owners - Potash Corp of Saskatchewan, Mosaic Co and Agrium Inc - plummeted, cutting their market value by nearly $12 billion by early afternoon [see chart above]. In the last few years, BPC and Canpotex raised potash prices well above their production cost, a senior official at a major Indian potash firm said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
There are broader geopolitical questions at stake here since Russia and Belarus are (were?) the closest of authoritarian allies. Does this indicate a wider split between the two nations? With potash being the main export earner of Belarus, this move by a Russian company to dissolve their cartel and try to make it up through volume will surely have negative effects on the Belarusians as prices normalize. Belarus has experienced economic difficulties in recent years, and this event is not a good omen:
Potash is the main export product for Belarus, Russia's staunchest ally among the former Soviet republics whose economy is stagnating after a financial crisis in 2011. Belaruskali was a partner to Uralkali for eight years in BPC, which once held 43 percent of the global potash export market. Uralkali was at one point rumoured to be interested in buying a stake in Belaruskali - which now looks unlikely.
Their joint venture started to crumble this year as rumors emerged that both were selling potash outside the partnership. The two firms previously denied those rumors. Uralkali said it pulled out because Belaruskali had made key fertilizer ingredient deliveries outside the partnership.
Me? I'm rather glad about the welfare effects of potash prices dropping worldwide for LDC farmers who've been victimized by the major producers' shenanigans these past few years. While the $20B potash market will not entirely be "freely traded" for the first time in eight years as some headlines suggest--there's the matter of the other cartel--things are definitely headed in a better direction.