Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT)’s first-quarter report was a pleasant surprise. Revenue as well as profits inched up on strong domestic demand for nutrients. It refueled the market’s interest in the stock – It has already gained more than 3% in less than a week since the earnings announcement.
Was everything really so good about PotashCorp’s numbers? Not quite. Ironically, investors of rival companies must feel greater excitement after Potash’s report than those of the company itself!
Pressure on top
Mosaic Co (NYSE:MOS) had upped the ante for PotashCorp when it reported 63% year-on-year improvement in its last-quarter potash sales volumes, backed by solid demand from farmers ahead of the U.S. spring planting season. PotashCorp chimed in with a whopping 78% jump in potash volumes. But prices of the nutrient continue to trend lower, which is a concern.
Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT)’s realized $417 per metric tonne for potash in North America in the first quarter compared to $447 per MT in the fourth quarter. The downward trajectory in prices was evident in Mosaic Co (NYSE:MOS)’s last quarter as well – It reported a selling price of $385 per tonne for potash, down 13% sequentially.
In an earlier post, I had highlighted how low potash prices are exerting downward pressure on top lines of nutrient producers for several quarters. Investors should remember that the last quarter included supplies made to China and India at relatively higher prices under recently-signed contracts. That overall average prices were very low despite this proves how soft domestic prices are.
Though volumes helped both Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT) and Mosaic Co (NYSE:MOS)report good revenue growth, what’s worrisome is that sales will not be as high as the year progresses. That’s because this past quarter coincided with the peak buying season for farmers in North America which boosted demand. Latin America should hold the key for the second half, but by then the contract with China will be over, unless of course the nation extends it, which is an uncertainty. China represented 25% of Canpotex’s sales this past quarter. Canpotex is the three-member legal cartel that controls potash exports out of Saskatchewan, and includes PotashCorp, Mosaic Co (NYSE:MOS), and Agrium Inc. (USA) (NYSE:AGU).
In fact, Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT) will continue keeping production well below full capacity this year till demand in the market aligns with excess supply. Mosaic’s potash plants also operated at just 78% capacity in the last quarter despite a busy season. That’s a sign that investors shouldn’t expect much on top-line growth for either company this year. Moreover, demand as well as prices for phosphate, the other nutrient both companies deal in, remains weak in the absence of contracts from key market India. Mosaic Co (NYSE:MOS) is in deeper trouble as it gets 70% revenue from phosphate. In short, low price for nutrients is a headwind hard to ignore.
Pressure at the bottom
Fertilizer companies, particularly those specializing in nitrogen nutrient are worst hit when natural gas prices rise. Gas is a key input for them. A third of PotashCorp’s revenue depends on nitrogen, so there’s reason to worry. It’s actually a double whammy for PotashCorp. Unlike CF Industries Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:CF) that’s a Midwest producer, PotashCorp sources gas largely from Trinidad where supplies have been unstable for some quarters, thereby adding significantly to Potash Corp./Saskatchewan (USA) (NYSE:POT)’s costs. The first quarter was no different — When gas prices hovered below the $4 mark, PotashCorp shelled out $6.1 per million British thermal units for gas.
The Trinidad factor is not only putting a squeeze on PotashCorp’s margins but also allowing peers to earn greater profits from the same business. So in the fourth quarter, while PotashCorp paid $7.01 per MMBTu, CF’s natural gas cost averaged just $3.61 per MMBtu. That’s a huge difference, something that could continue showing up in the near future. CF is about to report numbers in some days, and I expect its first-quarter gas cost to be well within $4 per MMBtu. Naturally, its margins should be better than PotashCorp’s. Bad news is that PotashCorp expects supply curtailments to continue through the year.