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Rising prices fuel scramble for PotashCorp

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (UPI) Aug 24, 2010
Soaring world prices of potash raised the stakes in a hostile bid to take control of Canada's PotashCorp that began with an Australian overture by BHP Billiton, swiftly rejected by the Canadian fertilizer giant.

PotashCorp is the world's largest fertilizer enterprise producing three primary plant nutrients -- potash, phosphate and nitrogen. It also controls 55 percent of the world's and 70 percent of North America's potash supply.

PotashCorp was reported Tuesday to be exploring other likely suitors that could include British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto or Brazil's Vale -- or even China.

PotashCorp rejected BHP Billiton's offer of $39 billion as too little and not reflecting the company's true value.

Amid a prevailing view that BHP Billiton's offer itself was triggered by a booming potash market analysts said both Rio Tinto and Vale could be well-positioned to improve BHP Billiton's offer and could then have the field clear unless the bidder between them was challenged by a Chinese entry into the contest.

China, the world's biggest potash importer, hasn't displayed its hand in the ongoing struggle. Analysts said the Chinese could throw a lot more cash behind a takeover bid or choose to keep PotashCorp Canadian with a strategic stake or strike an investment-for-supplies deal.

Whatever the outcome potash investors appeared set to make continuing gains as prices kept a healthy climb.

Potash prices have soared from about $200 a ton to about $900 last year, settling around $360 this year amid predictions prices could go up again to around $500 a ton. The price seesaw added to PotashCorp's optimism it could secure a buyer or partner with a more lucrative offer than BHP Billiton's bid.

Both Rio Tinto and Vale are seen by analysts to be capable of trumping BHP Billiton's $130-a-share offer without overstretching, while Moody's ratings service warned BHP it could face a downgrade if it went for PotashCorp on the back of heavy borrowing.

Analysts said the prospect of rising potash prices made borrowing easier as it also made PotashCorp more expensive to acquire.

Investor excitement over potash has been driven by fundamentals such as a growing global population that will require more food production. Potash also is seen as a secure commodity because it has no credible commercial substitute and therefore is irreplaceable in most fertilizers.

A decreasing availability of arable lands is set to boost demand for potash.

Potash consumption slumped in 2009 after crop prices plunged but demand is set to rebound to 50 million tons this year from less than 30 million tons in 2009.

Reserves and production of potash are concentrated in 12 countries -- Canada followed by Russia, Belarus, Germany, Israel, China, Jordan, the United States, Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Spain, Chile, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Ukraine.

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