The following is a breakdown of wholesale prices and trends of the various fertilizers in the month of March and into the first two weeks of April.
Ammonia saw some activity in March with pockets of the Southern Plains starting planting as usual. But movement soon followed in Illinois with a surprising stretch in mid-March, owing to a preview of spring weather that came at the end of the month. By the first days of April, terminals in Illinois and Iowa reported prepaid ammonia was beginning to move in anticipation of clear weather and soil drying.
Prices in March were flat and relatively uniform across the Corn Belt in a range of $320-$350 per short ton (t) free-on-board (FOB). However, at the end of the month, prompt ammonia prices from Illinois to Ohio had risen almost in line with prepay values at $380-$400/t FOB. West of the river, prices remained lower at $330-$350/t FOB in Iowa and Nebraska, with the latter still at extremely high soil saturation levels, according to NOAA.
Along with an early start in Illinois and USDA increasing its corn acreage forecasts to 97 million, fundamentals for U.S. ammonia are much more positive this season.
As the international impact of COVID-19 outside of China was just beginning to take shape in early March, the situation for global ammonia was extremely uncertain. That uncertainty grew exponentially following the mid-March crude oil price crash and pandemic expansion of the virus, culminating with countries including China and India, having to turn away ammonia vessels temporarily.
India outright closed smaller ports and shut down several phosphate production plants that consume imported ammonia. In China, however, COVID-19 infections peaked and began to fall at the end of March, signaling the country's recovery from the worst of the outbreak, and fertilizer production began returning to higher rates.
In terms of international impact by the numbers, Yara and Mosaic agreed to roll over the Tampa ammonia contract price at $250 per metric ton (mt) cost and freight (CFR) for April. The Tampa price has not changed since December when Mosaic announced temporary phosphate production curtailments. Ammonia prompt prices in the Baltic also remained flat at $218-$220 FOB. In Yuzhnyy, Ukraine, prices fell roughly $5 from $220-$225 to $219-$221 FOB.
Looking at fundamentals, the global market remains oversupplied and could face further downturns, especially if important ammonia ports are closed or if phosphate production is curtailed due to COVID-19. India this past week offered much better news, however, with some ports allowed to take ammonia vessels and some plants restarting following renewed advice from the government that fertilizer is an essential industry.
At the end of February, urea barge prices in New Orleans, Louisiana, (NOLA) had risen $10-$20 to $243-$251/t FOB from lows lower earlier in the month. The bullish trend continued in March with prices increasing to $245-$267/t FOB as urea imports remained well below last year's volumes by nearly 1 million tons. The Russia-Saudi Arabia crude oil price war and stock market crash briefly erased urea's gains as prices fell roughly $25 in one week, before prompt barge prices rallied again to as high as $270 in early April.
On terminals along open sections of the Mississippi River, prices rose to $280-$300/t FOB at the end of March, up from $275-$295 earlier in the month. In Northern markets, prices also rose to $295-$300 in the Twin Cities from $285-$290. Factory prices (ex-plant) fell slightly in Oklahoma from $300/t to $290-$300, while in Iowa, the price range widened at both extremes from $300 to $290-$310.
So far, some additional vessels have been confirmed for April arrival, but inbound volumes are still roughly 800,000 tons short of last year. We expect prices have some more room to firm in April with the likelihood to soften afterward in the scenario that enough imports arrive to properly supply the market.
At the end of March, India came back to the global market with a urea tender, accepting offers of roughly 750,000 mt of urea. Bullish analysts, however, had expected a much larger buy as India begins their new fertilizer budget year.
In March, urea prices fell in many major markets, including Brazil, Egypt and China. In Egypt, March ended $10-$15 lower from the beginning of the month at $239-$245 FOB and CFR prices for Brazil fell similarly to $245-$248 CFR.
International markets hold soft overtones with economies reeling from the impact of COVID-19. However, the short-term prompt demand from U.S. and global traders covering shorts for Europe seems to be keeping the market from an all-out crash.
UAN saw muted excitement over a historically attractive value per unit of nitrogen compared to urea, and as urea prices moved higher in March, so followed UAN. Large domestic nitrogen producers with the ability to switch, are reportedly favoring urea production over UAN. Additionally, Russian producers have cut back production and exports to the U.S. in response to the lower price levels earlier in the year.
With supply running tight, especially on the Texas Gulf and East Coast at the end of March, prices soared as much as $30 higher in one week in certain markets. At NOLA, UAN prices rose in March from $120-$125/t FOB to $135 with river terminals rising $10 to $170-$180/t FOB. On the East Coast, prices rose from $145 CFR to $200 CFR.
The outlook for UAN in the U.S. is firm for the short term, with room to move up basis urea prices levels; however, additional UAN import vessels from Russia in May could cap the upside.
DAP and MAP prices remained unchanged for most of March before prices rose in early April. Both demand and supply are increasing as peak spring activity nears.
In February, prices at NOLA were in the mid-$270s/t DAP and low $280s for MAP. At the end of March, prices remained largely at those levels with DAP at $272-$275/t FOB and MAP at $275-$280. Along the Mississippi at lower river terminals, prices ended March at $300-$310 DAP and $305-$315 MAP, only slightly softer on the low end by about $5 from late February.
Phosphates have a chance to continue gaining in price with peak spring demand just ahead, but high carryover inventories from past seasons will need to clear out before prices start to significantly rise. More imports from Morocco and Russia could limit price gains, however, as the U.S. remains an attractive import market. Our outlook on DAP and MAP prices is stable to firm.
March was a month of uncertainty for international phosphates with the impact of COVID-19 outside of China just beginning to show itself. India was the main focus where most ports have declared force majeure as a result of the lockdown situation, which has affected the domestic phosphate producer's ability to import raw materials. Some plants have had to close temporarily, and this will likely lead to higher Indian imports of finished phosphates later in the year.
March was mixed in terms of price movements. MAP prices fell in Brazil from $330 CFR to $315-$320, but DAP prices rose in India from $310 to $314-$320 CFR.
The global market has a mostly bearish tone coming out of March with uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 situation. Our outlook for international phosphates is soft to stable.
U.S. potash remained seasonally slow in March with prices generally remaining unchanged or softening slightly. Imported product in the NOLA barge market brought prices down roughly $5 from $210-$215/t FOB at the beginning of March to $205 at the end of the month.
River terminal values weakened slightly, going from $240-$250 earlier in the month to $235-$245. Similar to phosphates, potash is seeing increased demand from springtime buying at NOLA and the terminals, but prices have not risen significantly as supply remains widely available.
Overall, the market remains soft globally as major markets including China and India have delayed settling supply contracts due to COVID-19. There is also some concern that potash application rates could get reduced due to unattractive profits for planting at today's crop prices.
Depending on how much movement we see in April, potash could see prices stabilize or rise if the weather permits for lots of dry application. River conditions will also play a role logistically across all products and determine how much imported product can compete with Canadian and American potash producers.
Editor's Note: This information was supplied courtesy of Fertecon, Agribusiness Intelligence, IHS Markit.
Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.