BHP entry threatens creaking global potash duopoly
The prospect of new competition from miner BHP Billiton could dynamite the cracks appearing in a potash duopoly that accounts for 70 percent of global trade in the fertilizer.
For decades two export groups, Belarus Potash Company (BPC), which represents producers in Russia and Belarus, and Canpotex, its North American equivalent, have set identical prices in key markets such as China and India and have often curbed output simultaneously.
That choreography, which smaller players also dance in step with, is already under fire; four producers in the groups - BPC's Uralkali, and Canpotex's three members Potash Corp of Saskatchewan, Agrium and Mosaic - recently agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle a U.S. antitrust lawsuit accusing them of concerted action to raise prices.
Canpotex and BPC did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but the producers have denied the accusations, and Uralkali said,"potash producers and traders do not agree with each other on prices and pursue their own pricing policies."
Their footwork has also faltered under the strain of falling prices in recent months, and the music could stop altogether if BHP goes ahead with the 8 million tonne per year Jansen mine in western Canada, which would be the world's largest potash mine if it opens as scheduled in 2017.
BHP, which has said it will not join Canpotex, would probably look to maximiz volume sales to make sense of its $14 billion investment, "which would lead to lower prices unless or until some other major sites shut down," according to Paul Burnside, analyst at CRU Group.
The sector, once a backwater for global investors, moved center stage in the 2000s as booming demand in emerging economies lifted potash prices from around $150 a tonne to about $1,000 in 2008. Mining potash costs around $100-$150 a tonne.
Though prices have more than halved since, fat margins lured a slew of mining firms to the business.
BHP will make a final decision on the project in its next financial year starting July 1, though it has already spent $2 billion on its entry into the sector, a spokesman said.
Privately held EuroChem is also building two mines in Russia, and German producer K+S is developing one in Canada's potash-rich Saskatchewan province, both set to open in 2016-2017.
All of which poses a big threat to the duopoly's grip on the market, said a senior official at a potash producer.
Mosaic and Uralkali have both said they would put planned expansion projects on ice if BHP went ahead with Jansen.