BUSINESS

PotashCorp backs off bigger stake in Israeli company and could end up exiting

04/25/2013 06:09 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT
PotashCorp. of Saskatchewan Inc. could end up exiting its position in Israel Chemicals Ltd. if there's no chance of getting a bigger stake in the Middle Eastern company.

The Saskatoon fertilizer giant said Thursday that it's setting aside for now attempts to acquire a controlling stake in the Israeli company — an issue that has generated much controversy in the country.

Chief financial officer Wayne Brownlee said that PotashCorp wants a deal that's in the company's best interests.

"I would reiterate if we get to the point in time where we believe that there's not a transaction that's possible in the long-term best interests of the company, then we would exit the stock," Brownlee told financial analysts.

"That remains to be the case," he said on a conference call, after PotashCorp reported a higher first-quarter profit of $556 million.

CEO Bill Doyle said PotashCorp's 14 per cent stake in Israel Chemical Ltd. is a "tremendous" investment and the company looks forward to further opportunities that could become available.

Israel Chemicals Ltd. mines potash from the Dead Sea and the Negev desert, as well as in Spain and England. Such an acquisition could help lower delivery costs in global markets such as Asia.

Doyle said it's important to be able to deliver potash economically.

"When you have a real good look at this business, you understand the importance of low-cost delivered supply. That should give you a good indication of why we think its advantageous for our stakeholders over the long term," he said.

There has been significant opposition to a foreign takeover of the Israeli company, including from some senior ministers in Israel's new coalition government, formed in March.

PotashCorp (TSX:POT) had itself been the target of a foreign takeover by BHP Billiton, an British-Australian mining giant that later withdrew after Ottawa moved to block the deal amid intense political lobbying by political leaders in Saskatchewan and others.

"While we continue to believe that such a transaction would be of tremendous benefit to stakeholders of both companies and the State of Israel, there must be receptivity to foreign investment and certainty in the rules that govern such investment," Doyle said earlier in a statement.

Desjardins Securities analyst John Hughes said PotashCorp's decision to abandon attempts at gaining a controlling stake in the Israeli company was sound.

"We believe management listened to the many concerned shareholders who openly expressed reservations in connection with foreign investment risk associated with ICL," Hughes said in a research note.

"We view this change in strategy as a significant positive event," Hughes said.

Doyle also said a return to strong global growth in 2014 will mean an increase in demand for potash to grow food.

"Clearly, India needs more potash," he said. "There's huge growth ahead in China."

Growth is also anticipated in Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as Central and South America, Doyle added.

In its financial results, PotashCorp said its profit for the quarter amounted to 63 cents per diluted share, ahead of analyst estimates and up from $491 million or 56 cents per share diluted in the same quarter of 2012.

However, the company's guidance for the second quarter is estimated at 70 to 85 cents per share — which was below the consensus estimate of 89 cents per share — and its 2013 guidance remains between $2.75 and $3.25 per share.

The global economic slowdown had caused some buyers to delay purchases or draw down inventories, but PotashCorp has said it expects demand to return.

Shares in PotashCorp were up 2.7 per cent, or $1.09, to $41.73 in afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.