Potash or Potassium (K) is the seventh most common naturally-occurring element in nature, and it is one of the three main macronutrients required for plants. It is crucial for the function of all living cells, aids in energy metabolism and is an important agent in the plant growth process. Plant benefits include activating enzyme functions, processing vitamins, guarding against drought and disease and improving the nutrient quality of the crop.
Fertilizers consume around 90% of global potassium production but there are also industrial uses (8-10% of total production) for potash such as in the production of potassium hydroxide, water softeners, de-icing salts, other salt compounds, fireworks, soaps, glass and biodiesels.
Elemental potassium does not occur in pure form in nature, as it is highly reactive to water. Some common rock formations contain potassium including orthoclase and granite. Large evaporate deposits from ancient lake and sea beds also exist from which rock is mined and then potash, potassium used for fertilizer, is extracted. These rock formations include sylvite (KCL or potassium chloride), sylvinite (KCL +NaCL or sodium chloride/halite), carnallite (KMgCL or potassium magnesium chloride), polyhalite, kainite and laingbeinite.
The largest deposits of potash are found in Canada and Russia as well as Belarus, followed by Germany, Israel, Jordan and the US. It can be mined traditionally or mined using a solution evaporation process, which is more costly than traditional mining.
The most common potash fertilizer is muriate of potash (MOP) which comes in standard and granular formulations. Standard MOP is used by poorer countries for direct application and is also used for chemical NPK production. Granular is sold at a slight premium over standard (usually $15-40/tonne or more) and is used in bulk blending for NPK production and also used for direct application by wealthier countries.
Sulphate of potash (SOP) is the second most common potash fertilizer and is sold at a higher premium from granular MOP (usually 10% premium as MOP is a necessary feedstock for most SOP production methods).
SOP is a specialty product and is usually offered in granular formation, which is why ICIS-The Market only assesses the price for granular formation.
SOP can be created via several methods such as leaching, but predominantly it is produced using the more traditional Manheim process in which MOP is treated with sulphuric acid. Some SOP producers say carnalyte provides a better product for the Manheim process to create SOP. Therefore, rising costs of MOP and sulphuric acid feedstock influence the price of SOP.
Standard grade SOP is most often used for direct application. Granular grade (about $50/tonne more expensive than standard), is predominantly used in bulk blending. Water soluble grade (at a $100/tonne premium over standard product), is used in specialized irrigation fertilizers.
Other formulations of potash include KNO3 (potassium nitrate), potassium hydroxide (K0H) and KMgCL (potassium magnesium chloride, or carnallite), but their global trade is insignificant compared to the traded volumes of MOP.
The Market quotes potash prices on a weekly basis worldwide on Thursdays.
Market Updates are published on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and occasionally Fridays.
WEEKLY PRICE ASSESSMENTS
- Vancouver FOB (USD/mt)
- Brazil CFR (USD/mt)
- NW Europe CIF (EUR/mt)
- Vancouver FOB (USD/mt)
- Israel/Jordan FOB (USD/mt)
- Baltic FOB (USD/mt)
- SE Asia CFR (USD/mt)
- China CFR (USD/mt)
Price assessments are based on information supplied by market participants through the week up to close of business on Thursdays at 17:00 hours in London.
Standard MOP is traded in larger volumes than granular as standard MOP is the potash of choice for India and China, two of the largest consumers by import volume. There is usually a $15-40/tonne premium for granular over standard MOP.
MOP standard is priced Vancouver (Canada) FOB, Israel/Jordan (Dead Sea) FOB, Baltic (Russia’s Ventspils port usually) FOB, SE Asia (various but mostly Indonesia and Malaysia) CFR, and China (contract price) CFR. India’s contract price is currently represented in the low range for Baltic, Vancouver and Israel/Jordan FOB prices.
Granular MOP is priced Vancouver FOB, Brazilian CFR and within NW Europe CIF. While granular product is also exported out of Israel/Jordan and the Baltic, it is exported in far lower quantities than Vancouver granular; hence the Vancouver FOB granular price serves as the benchmark. The bulk of granular product exported out of the Baltic goes to Brazil, and the Brazilian granular CFR price reflects sufficient market information in this regard.
SOP comprises 10% of the global potash market. SOP granular is generally sold at 25-30% premium to MOP granular in the American markets. The premium is higher, usually €90/tonne, in the European market. This premium has increased in recent years. SOP granular bulk product is priced for NW Europe on a CIF basis. It is generally sold into Europe for NPK producers and for industrial users.
Two of the largest potash importing countries, China and India, negotiate contracts on a bi-yearly (twice a year) basis, however India is now moving to signing annual contracts. These negotiations are usually led by a government entity.
For China this means contracts are secured usually in winter, ahead of spring planting, and in summer, ahead of fall planting. However, the bi-yearly contract is a recent development; before 2009 China used to secure contracts for potash on a once-yearly basis. In India, contract prices are settled bi-yearly as well, in preparation for the kharif (summer) growing season and the rhabi (winter) season, but in 2013 India moved back to annual contracts. The timing for the Indian market is likely to remain volatile given the issues in the country over subsidy.
Aside from India and China, the bulk of potash trade is done on a “contract” basis – sometimes explicit or implicit – in which marketers continually supply to existing customers. A new price is often negotiated on a quarterly basis, as the potash market tends not to experience significant pricing fluctuations.
Large suppliers will issue price announcements to alert existing customers of price changes. These existing customers include NPK producers, industrial users, large plantation owners, buyers and traders.
Spot prices reflect cargoes that will ship within four-six weeks of the concluded business deal. Some countries, such as Sri Lanka, issue monthly purchase tenders for product, the prices for which would be indicative of spot prices.
Prices are usually assessed on a cash basis, but ICIS also reports the credit terms, included in some contracts (e.g. $470/tonne CFR plus 180 days credit). Business done with developing nations, such as Sri Lanka and India, usually includes credit terms. These credit terms can vary from one to three months.
STANDARD CARGO SIZE
All major shipments of MOP, from Vancouver and Baltic (Ventspils), into Brazil, India and China, is shipped on Panamax vessels, in excess of 50,000 tonnes of product, as this provides optimal scale of economy.
Russian MOP product will ship to the US on Panamax (in excess of 50,000 tonnes), but also on Babymax vessels (35,000-40,000 tonnes) and on Handysize (can be 15,000-35,000 tonnes but most often it is around 25,000 tonnes). Most potash sold into Central and Latin America are Handysize cargoes; however, Brazil will often take Panamax due to the size of its domestic market and high requirement for potash.
On occasion, Russian MOP product out of Ventspils may be shipped as a combination cargo with urea, which is also exported from Ventspils (Baltic). Combination vessels will usually be Handysize. Chile also sells some combination cargoes on Handysize into Brazil. Combo cargoes are not indicative of the bulk of market activity and are therefore not reported in The Market.
Dead Sea and Canadian MOP is generally never sold in combination cargoes. The majority of all Mop business is done on Panamax and Babymax.
Volumes for SOP are a lot smaller and therefore it is sold in bulk, on container vessels, or as a part (roughly 5,000 tonnes) of a bulk carrier (usually Handysizes). Water soluble grade (currently not price assessed) will be higher in freight costs because it must be in 25kg bags on pallets inside containers because it absorbs water which can ruin the product. Currently standard SOP and water soluble SOP grades are not priced in The Market. German potash producers also send combination cargoes into Latin America with a variety of potash, SOP and other salt fertilizer products.
Information about new sales, changes to supply/demand and any other factors that can have an impact on the potash market is collected through the week up to press time on Thursdays through telephone calls with producers, end-users, traders and shippers, plus email correspondence and web searching. Information received is carefully counterchecked with other sources to make sure the information is true and accurate and not in any way misleading.
The main reference prices in the potash market are the Vancouver standard FOB and Vancouver granular prices as well as the Baltic standard FOB price.
The main trade patterns in the potash market are as follows:
Canadian standard and granular MOP is sold globally and reflected in the Vancouver standard FOB and Vancouver granular FOB prices, with contract prices to China and India indicated in the lowest of the standard MOP range.
Baltic standard is sold globally and is priced on a Baltic standard FOB basis. Baltic granular is sold to Brazil and reflected in the Brazil CFR price.
Once contracts are negotiated with Chinese buyers, the price is indicated in The Market as a China CFR price and will only change once new contracts have been finalised.
SE Asia imports from Europe, Canada and East Europe, sometimes contract and sometimes spot. The price for standard MOP is reflected in the SE Asia CFR price.
European-produced granular MOP is sold most frequently throughout Europe and, though it sells into Latin America and SE Asia as well, the truest representation of the price is the NW Europe € CIF price.
European-produced SOP also sells into various regions but the bulk of sales are for NW Europe and the price is reflected on a NW Europe € FOB basis.
18 February 2013