Domestic demand for fertilizer is good news for small, U.S. potash producers. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, Weiss Research Natural Resources Analyst Sean Brodrick explains the international market forces behind agriculture-related stocks and points to the companies that could benefit in the long term.
The Energy Report: I understand you’re not really bullish on energy these days. Can you give me a brief synopsis as to why?
Sean Brodrick: I’m concerned about the perception of a slowdown in the global economy. With so much free money floating around the market, the psychology becomes so much more important. And, right now, people are really worried about a slowdown in the global economy. They’re starting to pull back and retrench.
Recently, we saw a rally in the market that could go on for a while because things have gotten so oversold to the downside. But the fundamentals haven’t changed. We are seeing fewer government financial injections, thus taking away the punch bowl. That weighs on energy stocks and a recovery generally. Also, we’re seeing worrisome news out of China. The country is still using a lot of energy—more each year. But, the demand for copper is falling off quite a bit. In fact, the most recent numbers I saw said that last month we saw Chinese copper demand drop off 47% year-over-year. May was down 6% from April, which was another down month. Copper is often an indicator of the global economy. Now, the Chinese just might be messing with us as they often do because they like to manipulate the market to get cheaper prices, but it also could indicate a global slowdown. If that is the case, then energy prices usually follow. So, we could see lower energy prices for some time.
You and I know that these energy companies make fantastic money even when oil is over $85/barrel. They make great money. But, again, it’s the perception, the psychology. People worry about quarter-over-quarter comparisons. They tend to punish stocks—perhaps a little unjustly, but they punish them anyway. So, we could see more downside in the broad energy sector.
TER: However, I understand you are very bullish on the potash market these days. Why is that?
SB: Short-term perceptions and worries about a global slowdown aside, the long-term reality is that we have 70 million people in China who are joining the middle class every year. We have millions more in places like India and Malaysia. All these people want to eat and live like big, fat Americans. So, the agricultural producers of those regions are hard-pressed to keep up with that demand. In fact, global consumption of things like grains, nuts and seeds—everything except meat—has gone up 2.5 times since 1970 and it keeps accelerating. This is driving the demand for potash, which has gone up something like 5.6% for the last three years in a row. It doesn’t seem like it’s really going to slow down. Now, if we saw a major downturn in the global economy, we would have to worry about that. But until we do, we’re going to see increasing global potash demand because farmers need it to increase their yields. The green revolution sent agriculture yields much, much higher. Now you have to put in a lot more fertilizer just to get incrementally larger yields. The only way you’re going to get those grain yields is by using potash.
Only 12 countries actually produce potash. Canada, Russia, Bellerose and Germany account for more than 75% of the global supply. And only eight companies control 80% the world’s potash production. Do you see how this could lead to a price squeeze? China will probably try to lock in potash supply going forward because of its need to feed its people. As China starts hoarding international potash supplies, we will have to look for domestic sources. That is good news for new, small potash producers in the U.S, which is already an agricultural powerhouse. We are to grain what OPEC is to oil. Increased U.S. demand for potash could certainly make a difference in the share prices of these small companies as long as they can continue to go into production and/or increase production.
TER: The U.S. gets most of its potash from Canada today, correct? What are the small players in the U.S. you like right now? Can they completely fill the domestic potash demand? Where do you see that market going?
SB: Right. Well, I like Intrepid Potash Inc. (NYSE:IPI) in New Mexico. This company seems to be doing things right. This is an example of a stock being punished unjustly. It has been brought down with the rest of the broad market. The correction in the broad stock indexes compressed the price of Intrepid Potash even as the company increased production.
Another one I like is Passport Potash Inc. (TSX.V:PPI, OTCQX:PPRTF), which you and I visited. It is a developer in Arizona with a great project near the American heartland. The company is doing more drilling, moving it along. I think the dominos are lining up. Passport is moving down the path to production of a million tons a year. This company is in a good position to do pretty well, but it has to get into production first.
TER: Passport Potash announced some initial drill results recently.
SB: Yes, they did and boy, they were good. Preliminary results from two core holes showed significant potash deposits at relatively shallow depths. The company intersected 9.5 feet of 12.29% KCL. Some parts were actually richer. More results should be coming in over the summer. As they report those, maybe the market will take a second look. Because of the risk of not being in production yet, Passport has really been punished along with the broader market. But the payoff could be much higher, especially if the company attracts the attention of one of the big boys, which I believe is going to happen down the road. Then I think Passport could do very well. We could see this thing jump quite nicely. Remember, Passport won’t be ripping up a huge hole in the desert with big trucks. This is planned as an in-situ leaching project. Passport will pump solution in one side of the field through the potash deposit and filter it out the other side. So, you don’t move a lot of dirt. That makes it easier to get environmental approvals.
TER: There has been some talk about the possible end of the ethanol subsidy affecting the broader fertilizer industry in the U.S. Do you think that is significant?
SB: It is significant in that it affects market psychology. The market mentality impacts all kinds of stocks. There was some action in the corn markets that you would not believe. However, let’s face it, 2012 is an election year. Do you want to be the political party that takes away the ethanol subsidy when you’re going into the Iowa caucuses? You could argue about whether subsidies are a good thing or not, but I just don’t think it’s politically feasible to take it away. I don’t think it’s actually going to happen. It’s all politics in ethanol.
TER: I hear even Al Gore is now saying that it was a mistake to suggest that ethanol could be a significant alternative energy source.
SB: Right. But that subsidy is probably not going away. It looks like an easy target, but when you take political considerations into account, and you have to, then it’s not a target you’re going to hit. Ethanol subsidies will be in place at least through the 2012 elections.
TER: Thank you very much Sean.
A natural resources analyst for Weiss Research, Inc., Sean Brodrick travels far and wide seeking out investment values, primarily among the small-cap and micro-cap players. He edits Weiss Research’s Crisis Profit Hunter and Red-Hot Global Resources, as well as making regular contributions to Uncommon Wisdom Daily. He is also a contributing columnist to Dow Jones MarketWatch and a frequent commentator on one of Canada’s premiere financial websites, HoweStreet.com. Sean’s expertise has led to many financial talk show appearances, including CNBC Squawk Box, Fox Business, CNN, The Glenn Beck Program, Your World with Neil Cavuto and Bloomberg Market Line. He is the author of The Ultimate Suburban Survivalist Guide, a guide to surviving the ever-changing economic landscape from stock market shakeups to oil and currency crises to natural disasters. A graduate of the University of Maine, Sean has more than 25 years experience as a professional journalist and financial analyst, including a stint as investment director of the Sovereign Society—the world’s leading publisher of offshore asset protection strategies and global investment opportunities.