Fertilizer, or crop-nutrient, companies like PotashCorp (NYSE:POT), CF Industries (NYSE:CF), and Mosaic (NYSE:MOS) have endured a volatile 2013. Coming off a tough year that included an acrimonious partnership breakup and a slump in industry profitability, these companies may have better times ahead. A couple of subtle yet consequential changes in the sector could produce improved profits and higher share prices.
Enduring a difficult 2013
The past year was very hard on the fertilizer makers, thanks to a couple of major issues. The breakup of Russian potash giant Uralkali and Belarus-based operator Belaruskali's sales partnership was probably the most publicized stumbling block. Uralkali broke the alliance by deciding to work alone and gain market share by dropping its selling prices. This unforeseen action sent fertilizer producer shares plunging worldwide, as investors feared an imminent price war.
Though a stunning development, Uralkali's decision only accelerated an already-festering industry problem -- overcapacity. Lulled by an exceptional operating environment in 2011, when crop-fertilizer demand flourished and pricing was abnormally strong, producers boosted production. This rise in industry capacity greatly increased product supply just as demand for crop nutrients began to moderate. A collapse in pricing and industry profits, amplified by anxiety over Uralkali 's intent, was the result.
PotashCorp, the world's largest crop-nutrients company, saw sales down 29% year over year in its latest quarter. Earnings were off a stunning 45% as a result of the weaker pricing. Mosaic, a leading phosphates producer, reported adjusted earnings dropped 36% compared to the prior year, with sales falling about 27%. CF Industries, the world's second largest maker of nitrogen fertilizer, posted adjusted earnings 38% lower year over year in its latest quarter as revenue sank 19% due to lower selling prices and buyers holding out for even further bargains.
Reorganizing the industry for long-term gain
Given the disappointing performance, it's not surprising that fertilizer producers have taken remedial action. Aimed at ensuring long-term profitability, Mosaic has been retrenching from its non-core business. It sold a salt-producing operation, closed a potash mine, and exited underperforming distribution businesses in South America. While cutting back in certain areas, the company is scaling up its commanding phosphates operation.
Attempting to gain a bigger share of the lucrative North American market, Mosaic agreed to purchase CF Industries' phosphate business for around $1.4 billion. The deal appears good for both companies. Mosaic gets to forego a costly planned manufacturing plant and also receives an attractive long-term supply contract as part of the purchase.
CF Industries, by jettisoning phosphates, can now focus on two main priorities. It wants to improve the profitability of its leading nitrogen business and return more cash to shareholders. Through improvements to its nitrogen operations, valuable long-term contracts like the one signed with Mosaic, and prudent use of additional debt, the company expects to generate higher cash flow, which will be available for larger dividend payouts or more share buybacks.
PotashCorp is taking a vigorous step toward reducing industry overcapacity by cutting its workforce by about 18%. Deciding the best way to enhance profits is by supporting product prices via a reduction in supply; the company is closing both a phosphate and chemical plant. The reorganization should help earnings in the long run. As fertilizer demand is likely to increase over time, thanks to a growing world population that needs to be fed, controlled production will keep prices elevated and support higher net income.
A possible reconciliation for short-term gain
The benefits provided from fertilizer-industry reorganization may be heightened by a possible Uralkali and Belaruskali reconciliation. Since the partnership dissolution wasn't really in anyone's interest, as seen in the 24% sales-price drop in a recent Uralkali-China potash deal, some sort of arrangement between the former partners seems to make sense.
A reunion may also fulfill political needs. Shortly after the split, Uralkali's CEO was detained in Belarus, apparently with the encouragement of the country's President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who was outraged at the Russian company's departure from the alliance. Lukashenko said a change in Uralkali's ownership would be necessary before any conciliatory talks could take place. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the potash dispute needed to be resolved.
Significant changes in Uralkali's ownership and management did coincidentally take place. New participants bought out old owners, and Dmitry Osipov, deputy chairman of OAO Uralchem -- a company that held a sizable, newly acquired Uralkali stake -- was named CEO, replacing previous management. Interestingly, Uralchem is majority owned by a Belarus-born, Russia-domiciled billionaire. All the corporate maneuvering suggests a reemergence of the Russian-Belarus association might be likely -- an event that should inspire increased confidence in and higher share prices for all fertilizer stocks.
The stock market is very cautious on fertilizer companies -- not surprising given the sector's recent travails. But the industry has taken steps to become leaner and more efficient, potentially supporting higher profitability in the long term. In addition, there are signs that the damaging split between Uralkali and Belaruskali may be mended, which could boost crop-nutrient stocks in the short term.
Investors may want to start considering fertilizer-company stocks now, while expectations are low, because share prices could grow quickly once Wall Street starts noticing the possibility of an industry rebound.
Bob Chandler owns shares of CF Industries Holdings, PotashCorp, and The Mosaic Company. The Motley Fool owns shares of CF Industries Holdings and PotashCorp. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.