Following the news on July 30, 2013, that Russia's OAO Uralkali was abandoning Belarusian Potash Co., a joint venture with rival Belaruskali of Belarus, the whole potash industry's stock market plunged right at the release of this news. Two cartels, Canpotex (PotashCorp, Mosaic and Intrepid) and BPC (Uralkali and Belaruskali), which control 40% and 30% of the potash market, would split up into three cartels: Canpotex, Uralkali and Belaruskali. Just to give an idea of the impact, one of the biggest players in this space, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan (NYSE:POT), dropped a staggering 20%.
Uralkali said it would be focusing on production volume, which means they would sell more potash following the breakup of the cartel. As a result the capacity will grow on this news. The question is, how should investors play this news? Should they buy the dip in potash stocks or sell out?
Today, a month after this news, we already see that potash prices have fallen 5% just recently. Prices for spot shipments of the crop nutrient from Port Metro Vancouver recently slipped $20 (U.S.) to less than $400/tonne, while there are preliminary signs of market softness elsewhere, including slightly discounted potash prices on rail shipments to China. So, it looks like potash prices are indeed softening.
We know that demand is still growing as potash deliveries are dependent on population growth in the Asian world and that number is still growing at a rate of around 5% per annum. If we bring this number down to world population growth, we have a growth rate of 1.1% per annum. Demand for potash is pretty inelastic, which means that higher and lower prices have little effect on demand. To give an example, farmers don't buy fertilizers every year, if their soil is fertile enough, they can weather a price spike in potash. So there is flexibility on the demand side, farmers will buy at the right moment, for example whenever the prices become cheap. Overall, the demand side looks positive. According to Green Markets, a fertilizer industry information provider, demand will increase 26% to 66 million tons in 2017. Now let's look at the supply side.
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|Chart 1: Potash Delivery Vs. Population Growth|
The potash industry is having a pretty high capacity utilization rate of around 80% (not as high as compared to a typical 90% capacity utilization rate in the mining industry), but let's say there is overcapacity at the moment. As capacity is set to grow due to the breakup of the cartel, we could see falling potash prices. At this moment, the marginal cost of potash production is around $280/tonne. So we could see potash prices fall another 30% to this level due to an increase in supply. It is estimated that supply will go to 96.5 million metric tonnes by 2017, according to Green Markets.
A good metric to predict potash prices is to look at the capacity utilization trends. The capacity utilization rate is a leading indicator for future inflation. When capacity utilization goes up, we can expect a similar increase in price in about a year from now. We can use this theory to predict potash prices.
Chart 2 gives a projection of the capacity utilization rate in the potash industry. As you can see, the capacity utilization plunged from 90% in 2007 to 50% in 2009. This corresponded with a drop in potash price from $870/tonne in 2009 to $312/tonne in 2010, approximately a one year lag as predicted by this correlation between capacity utilization and prices.
If we then look at what is happening in 2013, we see that the capacity utilization rate is pretty flat, so I don't expect any huge movements in price in the coming years, but prices could certainly soften to around marginal cost of production. If we look at the Green Market numbers, we would get 66 million tonnes and 96.5 million tonnes by 2017. That's a capacity utilization of around 70%. This really isn't all too bad, considering the plunge to 50% in 2009. Also consider that many of the mines won't come into production at the current price of $400/tonne, which is basically the minimum price to develop a development stage potash mine.
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|Chart 2: Potash Capacity Utilization|
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|Chart 3: Potash Price (KCL)|
The conclusion is that this breakup in the BPC cartel can definitely lower potash prices to around $300/tonne. If you know this will happen, you should invest only in those projects that are low cost. Many development projects need at least a $400/tonne potash price to be economically viable, according to Patricia Mohr, vice-president and commodity market specialist at Bank of Nova Scotia. Knowing that potash prices could go lower than this level, I would be very wary about development companies. Investors should only limit themselves to low cost producers that are fully funded.
One of my favorite plays was Allana Potash (OTCPK:ALLRF) and it is still my favorite (please note that this ticker trades fairly illiquidly, but that trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange is more liquid). I have written about this company a year ago. Even though Allana Potash has declined since then (together with the whole commodity market and mining industry), the news gets better and better. Allana Potash's valuations have only improved and the company has all the ingredients to make it into a producing mine. At that time, almost a year ago, the company had around $60 million in cash on hand and was still in the feasibility stage, with a cash burn rate of $2.5 million/month. Today, Allana Potash still sits on $20 million in cash and is set to significantly reduce its cash burn rate due to the completion of its feasibility study. I estimate the cash burn rate is around $500000/month. This means that the company is fully funded for at least 3 years without any equity offerings. On top of that, the company is significantly expanded its property with the buyout of Nova Potash. This buyout seemed to be a great deal as their mineral resources have increased 90%. A timeline of the most significant developments is given below:
- Jan 7th: the company announced the hydrogeological study being completed by Fugro Consult GmbH ("Fugro") on its Dallol Potash Project in Ethiopia, indicating a positive outcome on the recharge rate of its water reservoir.
- April 18th: the company has filed its complete Feasibility Study with the Ministry of Mines in Ethiopia as the final condition for the application of a Mining License.
- May 22th: The company receives approval of its Environmental, Social, and Health Impact Assessment ("ESHIA") from the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority ("EPA") and Ministry of Mines and Energy (the "Ministry").
- June 26th: Following the buyout of Nova Potash, Allana Potash announced that they increased their mineral resources by 90%, which included 28 drill holes on the Nova Potash property.
- August 7th: The Company has submitted complete mining permit documentation to the Ministry of Mines of Ethiopia.
And just this week, the company announced that formal mandate letters have been signed between Allana and members of the group of DFIs and ECAs. This project update is extremely important as project financing is the last piece of the puzzle. According to management, CAPEX would be $650 million (total production CAPEX of about $579 million and port and transport CAPEX of $63 million). The deal announced this week could be the first formal step towards securing 65% of the debt financing, which further de-risks the project.
Allana Potash has already significantly de-risked many aspects of its project in the past and is well positioned to start its construction work next year. If you know that the net present value is $1.32 billion at a $430/tonne basis, while the total production cost is $100/tonne, which is well under the predicted $300/tonne potash price at the end of 2013. Then you know that the future is still going to be bright for this company. We are talking about multiples of upside from the current stock price, based on the current market price of 140 million and the net present value of at least $1 billion.
As always, there are still risks in investing in Allana Potash. Among these risks are the denial of a mining permit, failure to finance the project, to run out of funding and lower potash prices in the future.