Russian Charges Against Potash Executive Won’t End Price War

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After Russian potash producer Uralkali pulled out of the Belarusian Potash Co., a potash marketing group formed with Belarus’s Belaruskali, Belarus took the occasion to nab Uralkali’s CEO and toss him into a Belarusian jail on charges of abusing his power, relations between the two countries have been strained at best.

Now the story, which began in late July, has taken a new twist. A report in The Wall Street Journal claims that Russian officials have opened their own criminal case against the Uralkali CEO, Vladislav Baumgertner, and are preparing to seek extradition for him. The latest development is believed to be a response to Belarus’s vow not to return Baumgertner to Russia unless he were subject to prosecution.

The breakup of the Belarusian-Russian cartel could drive global potash prices down by as much as 25%, spelling big problems for North American producers Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. (NYSE: POT), The Mosaic Co. (NYSE: MOS), and Agrium Corp. (NYSE: AGU), themselves members of a potash marketing group called Canpotec.

New orders for potash have disappeared as buyers demand steep discounts. When Uralkali left its partnership with Belarus the Russian company said it would pursue a volume strategy rather than a pricing strategy.

The Russian government wants Baumgertner back and it is unlikely that Belarus will return him based on Russia’s agreement to open a case against him. The small, former Soviet republic’s economy has been trashed by Uralkali’s exit from the cartel, and Belarus will demand more than the possibility of a prosecution for the return of its hostage.

Potash Corp. lowered its earnings estimates for the third quarter last Friday, dropping its per share forecast from a range of $0.45 to $0.60 to $0.41. A settlement to the Russian-Belarusian split is needed to bring back some pricing certainty to potash producers, and that’s still some time off.