An obscure Canadian export cartel has emerged as a key negotiating issue for BHP Billiton and other potential buyers circling Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.

The 1970s-era cartel, Canpotex Ltd., lets its members negotiate prices together overseas. But BHP doesn’t want to sell through the cartel, which typically handles more than a quarter of the world’s exports of potash, a key form of fertilizer.

Canpotex’s influence has long irritated China, one of the world’s biggest potash buyers and a source of other potential bidders for Potash Corp.

However, many local Canadian interests — from the province to the miners’ unions — like the cartel, which keeps money flowing to provincial coffers to fund everything from health care to education.

‘There’s a little bit of angst and concern around this offer because we know what happens when potash sales collapse,’ said Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Wall said he told BHP executives last week he’s worried about what a change in sales tactics would do to the province’s income.

‘I indicated my concern is around Canpotex,’ he said. ‘My long-term concern is around revenue for the province.’

The province’s well-being will likely be a big factor in the Canadian government’s decision about whether to approve any purchase of Potash Corp. by an outside buyer.

Started by the potash producers of Saskatchewan in 1972, Canpotex handles potash sales from the province — home to an estimated 53% of the world’s known deposits — to countries outside of the U.S. and Canada. Canpotex and one other big cartel — a joint venture between producers in the Republic of Belarus and Russia — control nearly 60% of the world’s export market for potash, according to estimates from London-based commodities consultancy CRU.

If BHP or another buyer ran Potash Corp.’s mines at full capacity, this could set the stage for a price war that would make fertilizer more affordable, some farmers say.

‘Us and many farmers have been upset with the potash people,’ said Kip Tom, who buys about 1,200 tons of that fertilizer for his family’s sprawling farming operations based in Leesburg, Ind. ‘If BHP operated full out, that would be good.’

Lower-priced potash would also be of keen interest to the world’s biggest importers, China, India and Brazil.
China — which consultants at CRU estimate led the world in potash purchases over the five years to 2008 — has dragged its feet in negotiations with Canpotex recently.

The Chinese bargained hard and bought instead from independent sellers and the Belarusian sales group.
Canpotex wasn’t able to secure a contract with China last year, and this year has only been able to get small, short-term contracts.

China is taking steps to reduce its reliance on foreign potash pricing, said Wei Chengguang, a Shanghai-based division chief at the China Inorganic Salt Industry Association who says he’s participated in pricing talks.

Chinese investors, including a consortium led by private-equity fund Hopu Investment Management Co., are mulling a bid for Potash Corp., people familiar with the situation said. Sinochem Corp., a government-owned company and one of China’s biggest potash buyers, has been in contact with Potash Corp. about developing a new alliance, a person familiar with the situation said. Potash Corp. already owns 22% of Sinochem’s fertilizer unit.

But a defection of Potash Corp. from Canpotex — and a potash price war — could be damaging to Saskatchewan’s other potash producers and their workers. Potash Corp. sells between half and two-thirds of its potash through Canpotex, and its product comprises more than half of the group’s annual sales.

Phred Dvorak / Scott Kilman

收购Potash公司将打响钾肥价格战?

在必和必拓(BHP Billiton)与其他潜在买家竞购Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.的过程中,加拿大一个名不见经传的出口卡特尔组织成了谈判中的关键议题。

这家20世纪70年代建立的卡特尔组织名为Canpotex Ltd.,允许成员在国外一起谈判价格,所经手的钾肥一般情况下超过全世界出口量的四分之一。但必和必拓不想通过这家组织销售产品。

Canpotex的影响力长期以来让中国不悦。中国是世界最大钾肥进口国之一,Potash公司的其他潜在买家也来自中国。

但在加拿大国内,从当地省政府到矿业工会的很多利益集团都对Canpotex喜爱有加,它让资金源源不断地流入省政府的金库,为医疗、教育等各种各样的支出提供资金。

萨斯卡切温省省长沃尔(Brad Wall)接受《华尔街日报》采访说,对于这次竞购,加拿大国内存在着一些忧虑,因为我们知道钾肥销量下滑会带来什么。沃尔说,他上周对必和必拓高管讲,他对销售手段的变化会给该省收入带来何种影响感到担忧。

他说,我明白地说我的担忧是有关Canpotex;我的长远担忧是有关本省的收入。

萨斯卡切温省的状况,很有可能成为加拿大政府决定是否批准国外买家收购Potash公司的一个重要因素。

Canpotex于1972年由萨斯卡切温省的钾肥生产商创设,经手该省向美国、加拿大以外的国家出口的钾肥,而据估计,萨斯卡切温省拥有世界53%的已探明钾矿储备。据伦敦大宗商品咨询公司CRU估计,Canpotex和另外一家大型卡特尔组织(由白俄罗斯和俄罗斯的生产商组成的一家合资公司)控制着全世界接近60%的钾肥出口市场。

一些农户说,必和必拓或其他买家如果让Potash公司的钾矿以全部产能生产,则将为一场价格战奠定基础,让化肥价格更加便宜。

美国人汤姆(Kip Tom)一家在印第安纳州的李斯堡开有面积很大的农场,钾肥购买量达到1,200吨左右。汤姆说,我们和很多农户都很讨厌钾肥生产商,要是必和必拓开足马力生产就好了。

钾肥降价同样会让中国、印度和巴西这几个世界最大进口国求之不得。

CRU的咨询师们估计,在截至到2008年的五年内,中国进口的钾肥数量为世界之最。最近中国在与Canpotex的谈判中采用了拖延战术。

中国人在谈判中强硬地压价,并把独立出口商和白俄罗斯的那家出口卡特尔作为替代性购买渠道。去年Canpotex连中国的一张合同也没有拿到,今年拿到的也只是小额短期合同。

中国无机盐工业协会钾盐分会会长魏成广说,中国正在采取措施降低它对钾肥国外定价的依赖。魏成广说他参与了钾肥的定价谈判。

知情人士说,来自中国的投资者正在考虑收购Potash公司,其中包括私募基金厚朴投资管理公司(Hopu Investment Management Co.)牵头的一个财团。国有企业中化集团(Sinochem Corp.)是中国最大的钾肥进口商,知情人士说,它在跟Potash公司就一项新的合作进行接触。Potash已经在中化集团的化肥子公司中持股22%。

但如果Potash公司脱离Canpotex,一场钾肥价格战打响,那么萨斯卡切温的其他钾肥生产商及其工人可能会蒙受损失。Potash公司一半到三分之二的钾肥都通过Canpotex销售,而在Canpotex的年销量中,Potash公司的产品超过一半。

Phred Dvorak / Scott Kilman

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