Potash prices wallow near six-year lows

Potash prices eased further, missing out on a revival seen in markets for other nutrients, as North American producers ramped up output, offsetting rapid growth in exports and domestic orders.

Potash prices, as measured on the Vancouver export market, wallowed last month at about $300 a tonne, the lowest since six years, and down from some $400 a tonne before the break-up in July of the Belarusian Potash Company, which controlled more than 40% of world trade.

The decline reflected a rise in North American inventories for fifth successive month, to 3.16m tonnes, up 100,000 tonnes from December, and well above the five-year average level.

Although demand for North American supplies rose substantially last month, output rose even faster, by 44% last month, to 1.62m tonnes, according to the data, released by Canadian potash giant PotashCorp.

Urea, phosphate revivals

The continued decline in potash prices contrasts with a continued revival in values of phosphate, which in its benchmark diammonium phosphate (DAP) form has returned above $400 a tonne in Tampa, on an fob basis.

Urea prices also extended their rebound, to about $350 a tonne in Yuzhnyy, Ukraine from levels below $300 a tonne six months ago, in a decline fuelled by record Chinese exports.

The revival in urea prices follows capacity cuts in China and Ukraine, with Norwegian giant Yara International warning of potential closures too, but also the start of China's period of higher export duties.

China operates higher export duties from November-to-December and January-to-June periods.

The current duty is 15% plus 40 yuan ($6.60) per tonne, although this amounts to far less prohibitive rates than previous seasons.

According to research group Integer, "if China's urea fob is $350-450 a tonne in peak seasons, China's new export tax will be only $50-66 a tonne, sharply down from a prohibitive $150-200 a tonne in 2013".

Potash price outlook

However, many observers remain more cautious over prospects for potash prices, following the market downturn prompted by the break-up in July of the Belarusian Potash Company cartel which controlled more than 40% of world volumes.

US-based Mosaic last week said that potash prices "seem to have found a bottom", adding that "the stage is set for improving prices later this year".

Rival Intrepid Potash said that "market indicators", including prices rises pushed through for Brazil, and contracts agreed by Chinese importers, "have presented a more positive near-term outlook.

But the group added that it was "cautious with its view on pricing given some of the structural pressures in the potash market".

Production outpaces demand

The PotashCorp data showed exports by North American producers rising by 22% year on year in January, to 803,000 tonnes.

Sales within the region soared 76% year on year to 833,000 tonnes.

However, with production rising by 44%, this demand was insufficient to prevent the rise in inventories.

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