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CF Industries Holdings (CF) is the largest producer of fertilizers in North America, with a sales volume of roughly 13,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer and roughly 2,000 tons of phosphate fertilizer in 2011. Furthermore, the company is on course to match that achievement in 2012. CF Industries sells a vital input into the agriculture sector and presently offers a free cash flow yield of 13.25% based on full-year 2011 results, while the year-to-date 2012 results are equally promising.

Recent economic conditions, specifically the cheapness of natural gas and the current high acreage of corn planted in the United States, have served to expand CF Industries' gross and net margins in its nitrogen business over the past few years and convinced the firm of the wisdom of an expansion of productive capacity. To that end, in 2010 the company acquired Terra Nitrogen, which approximately doubled the firm's nitrogen fertilizer capacity, and the company also recently announced a further capital expansion plan that is projected to increase fertilizer capacity by potentially an additional 4,000 tons per year. The bulk of CF Industries' operations are in the Midwestern region of the United States and Canada, apart from the phosphate mine located in Florida. The company also has an interest in two joint ventures to produce nitrogen, one located in the United Kingdom and the other in in Trinidad and Tobago, and another joint venture in a fertilizer trading company in Europe.

The primary input for the production of nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, which accounted for 45% of the cost of production in 2011. The cheapness of natural gas in the United States has resulted in substantial margin improvements over the last few years. These improvements may be expected to persist under two conditions: Either natural gas stays cheap in the future, or the fertilizer industry is capable of passing on inflation to its customers. Furthermore, over the short term CF Industries has a forward sales program that allows its customers to arrange forward delivery of fertilizers at an agreed-upon price, which in turn allows CF Industries to lock in its margins by purchasing natural gas hedges. Also, CF Industries engages in its own program of natural gas hedging for its production that has not been sold forward. As a result of these factors, investors may enjoy a greater confidence in future margin stability than is common in cyclical industries.

CF Industries' phosphate fertilizer division is smaller in terms of sales volume and profits, while its primary inputs, primarily sulfur and ammonia, have no organized forward market. As a result, margins in this sector show greater variability. The phosphate rock mine owned by CF Industries has 13 years of permitted reserves remaining at current production volumes, and the company is attempting to secure permits to expand its allowed mining area, which would extend the lifespan of its reserves by an additional 10 years.

Turning to the figures, the latest balance sheet for CF Industries indicates $2.221 billion in cash, plus $41.7 million in auction-rate securities for which no liquid market exists, but from which the company realized $31 million in sales or maturies in year-to-date 2012. CF Industries' total current assets have a balance of $3.015 billion, and its total liabilities total only $1.194 billion, of which $618 million consists of advance payments on forward sales. Therefore, in theory the company has perhaps $2 billion in excess cash on the balance sheet. If that cash were treated separately, the firm's market cap would be reduced from its present $13.1 billion to $11.1 billion and the calculated free cash flow yield would improve from 13.25%, based on full-year 2011 results, to 15.64% -- a very impressive figure. However, the nitrogen fertilizer expansion project mentioned above has a projected capital budget of $3.8 billion. The company reported in its latest conference call that it has not ruled out the possibility of accessing the capital markets, and that its metrics are consistent with an investment-grade credit rating. Even so, the company may prefer to direct some or much of its cash to the expansion project, which means that investors should not count on the excess cash balance as being separable from the company.

In terms of income and free cash flow, in 2011 the company's sales were $6.078 billion and cost of sales, net of unrealized derivative losses, were $3.125 bilion, producing a gross margin of $2.953 billion and a gross profit margin of 48.4%. Other operating costs totaled $155 million, offset by $55 million in earnings from operating affiliates, producing operating earnings of $2.484 billion. Depreciation was $416 million and capital expenditures were $247 million, producing operating cash flow of $3.095 billion. Interest expense was $147 million, which leaves $2.948 billion in pretax cash flow. Applying an estimated tax rate of 35%, which approximates the company's average income tax provision rate over the last few years, produces an after-tax free cash flow of $1.916 billion. Subtracting $222 million for minority interests and adding back $42 million in the equity of non-operating affiliates, produces a free cash flow to common shareholders of $1.736 billion and a net margin of 28.6%.

CF Industries Sales and Free Cash Flow Estimates, 2006-11

201120102009200820072006
Sales607839652608392127572033
Nitrogen Fertilizer Volume* (1,000 tons)13002114615851614169146310
Cost of Sales, as reported320227861769269820871886
Unrealized Derivative Gains/(Losses)(77)1088(64)13(31)
Gross Margin295311797511287653178
Gross Margin Percentage48.4%29.7%28.8%32.8%23.7%8.8%
Operating Costs155149**160736876
Depreciation(416)(395)(101)(101)(85)(95)
Capital Expenditures24725823614210560

Income from Operating Affiliates

(50)(11)0000

Operating Cash Flow (not including changes in working capital)

309511784561173565137
Interest Expense147135***2223
Pretax Free Cash Flow294810434541171563134
Est. After-tax Free Cash Flow (35% rate)191667829576136787
Income from Non-Operating Affiliates(42)(27)0000
Minority Interest2229283763519
Est. After-tax Free Cash Flow to Common Shareholders173661320268533268
Free Cash Flow Margin28.6%15.5%7.8%17.5%12.0%3.3%

(All figures in $millions unless otherwise indicated.)

* During the years reported, CF Industries also sold phosphate fertilizer in amounts ranging from 1,787 and 2,249 tons per year, with an average of 1,985 tons.

** Does not include $145 million in acquisition costs pertaining to the Terra Nitrogen acquisition. As CF Industries is not a serial acquirer, I have elected to treat these acquisition costs as nonrecurring.

** Does not include $85 in early amortization of debt issuance costs.

I would point out that conditions in 2008 and 2009 were atypical, comprising a speculative boom and later a bust in commodities including natural gas, and then the financial crisis. Even so, the expansion in nitrogen fertilizer capacity made possible by the Terra Nitrogen acquisition in the first half of 2010. Plus, the improvement in North American natural gas prices in that period seem to have allowed for substantial improvement in the company's margins, making a return to the conditions (and margins) of the pre-2010 period seem unlikely.

2012 is shaping up to be an excellent year as well, with sales increasing 6%, gross margins as adjusted for unrealized derivative losses improving by 4.8%, and free cash flow to common shareholders improving by 5%. The company attributes these results to an increase in the selling price of nitrogen fertilizer coupled with a decrease in the cost of natural gas, offset by a decline in the gross margin of the phosphate fertilizer business owing to lower selling prices. However, in the third quarter of 2012 there was a 3% decline in tons of nitrogen products sold as compared to the third quarter of 2011, partially offset by a 1% increase in prices.

CF Industries 2012 YTD Results Compared to the Same Period in 2011

Quarters 1-3 of 2012Quarters 1-3 of 2011
Sales46234380
Nitrogen Fertilizer Volume (1000 tons)96909658
Cost of Sales, as reported24572030
Unrealized Derivative Gains/(Losses)(61)28
Gross Margin23962058
Gross Margin Percentage51.8%47.0%
Operating Costs153110
Depreciation(319)(315)
Capital Expenditures261169
Income from Operating Affiliates4041
Operating Cash Flow (not including changes in working capital)23412035
Interest Expense105115

Pretax Free Cash Flow

22361920
Est. After-tax Free Cash Flow (35% rate)14531248
Income from non-operating Affiliates(49)(35)
Minority Interest190159
Est. After-tax Free Cash Flow to Common Shareholders13121024
Free Cash Flow Margin28.4%23.4%

(All figures in $millions unless otherwise indicated.)

During CF Industries' latest conference call, the firm announced that its level of maintenance capital expenditures in future was estimated to be between $350 and $400 million per year. This is significantly higher than the level of expenditures in 2011, but consistent with the levels in 2012, and this level of expenditure does not seem to have imperiled the free cash flow yield.

So, if the current level of nitrogen fertilizer and natural gas pricing continues, or if CF Industries firm is capable of passing any inflation on to its consumers, the firm's current level of profitability is fairly safe. Furthermore, with a free cash flow yield of 13.25%, even a significant (e.g. 20%) decline in free cash flow would provide current investors with an impressive free cash flow yield. As a result, and taking into account the possibility that the expansion project may result in increased free cash flows in excess of the firm's cost of capital if the current pricing regime remains stable, I can confidently recommend CF Industries as a candidate for portfolio inclusion.

Sources: CF Industries' Q3 2012 conference call, Q3 2012 10-Q, 8-K Filing (dated Nov. 1, 2012), 2011 10-K, and 2008 10-K.

Source: CF Industries Is An Attractively Priced Fertilizer Company With Strong Margins