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DTN Fertilizer Outlook

Wet, Cold Midwest Weather Pressuring Fertilizer Markets

NOLA urea barge prices were under pressure in March due to slow demand, with trades at $234 to $242/short ton during the last week of the month. (Chart courtesy of Fertecon, Informa Agribusiness Intelligence)

Here is a breakdown of wholesale prices and trends of the various fertilizers:

AMMONIA

International

Global ammonia markets remained soft in March with weakness in urea and nitrates markets pressuring ammonia prices as well as reduced demand in India due to phosphate plant turnarounds.

The April Tampa contract settled at $275 metric ton (mt) cfr (cost and freight), a $30 decrease from March. The Caribbean Nitrogen Company (CNC) and the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago reached an agreement for a new gas supply contract. The Prime Minister of Trinidad has indicated the seven-week closure of the CNC plant will end. It has been suggested the plant will restart in first-half April.

Maintenance turnarounds and outages at several ammonia plants in March/April tightened supply in the Middle East. However, this was mostly offset by phosphate plant turnarounds in India. Middle East fob prices ended March at $250 to $275 mt fob, down from $295 to $320 at end of February.

With a decline in phosphate prices looking possible in the coming weeks and new ammonia production due to come on stream in the second quarter, there appears to be further downside for global ammonia prices in April.

Domestic

There has been little demand for new tons thus far in the season with wet and cold weather pushing back opportunities for preplant applications in many regions. The $30 decrease in the Tampa contract has reaffirmed buyers' beliefs that interior prices are at a peak, so buyers are taking a hand-to-mouth approach for any residual needs. Interior ammonia prices were unchanged in March with fob values in the Corn Belt still ranging from $420 to $450/short ton (ston) and $385 to $390 covering ex Oklahoma plant prices.

The direct application season has yet to ramp up in the central Corn Belt. It will be a relatively late start compared to last season, but it will still likely be an average start historically. There is some concern that ammonia volumes will be down from last spring due to a potentially short application window and because of the large volumes that were put down last fall.

Application work in the central/Southern Plains has slowed with recent rains. Wholesalers in Kansas and Missouri are reportedly nearly finished with corn preplant ammonia applications as more focus now shifts towards planting. The Northern Plains will likely be facing a late start to anhydrous applications due to recent winter weather. Some switching to urea is being heard about in the North due to the expected short application window. Urea prices are also becoming relatively more attractive on a dollar per unit basis.

The outlook for domestic ammonia prices is stable with an undertone of softness as increased end-user demand mostly offsets international weakness in the short term. Lower prices are expected for summer fill.

UREA

International

Global urea prices softened in March. A significant pull of 650,000 t from India in its latest tender helped support Middle East fobs early in the month, but even with minimal Chinese exports, values began to dip midmonth due to slow demand in Brazil and APAC. Meanwhile, a slow start to the application seasons in Europe and the U.S. kept North African producers in check. India will need to return for a similar volume in April if prices are to find support near current values.

Unexpected buying from Ethiopia provided some relief for Egyptian producers, but it was not enough to keep North African fob values from dropping to $248 to $252 mt by the end of March from $270 to $275 in February.

Buyers in Brazil continue to push back, causing Middle East fob values to drift lower to $251 to $257 mt from around $260 last month.

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Overall, the market looks fairly balanced for April thanks to stronger-than-expected U.S. imports combined with some one-off demand in Ethiopia. However, Q2 supply looks set to outweigh demand and prices are expected to soften by early May.

Domestic

The domestic urea market is struggling with a lack of liquidity due to persistent wet and cold weather in the Midwest delaying applications, as well as transportation issues on the river system. With the international market looking weak and domestic production issues resolved, importers are looking to sell rather than face high demurrage costs while they wait for demand. Increased freight rates due to tight barge supply are also pressuring NOLA fob values lower. NOLA barges ended the month trading at $234 to $242/ston fob, down from $250 to $258 at the end of February.

River terminal prices were only slightly softer from last month. Most values are in the $275 to $285/ston fob range compared to $280 to $290 in February. The spread between prices at NOLA and upriver terminals has widened due to delays in barge deliveries from NOLA tightening warehouse supplies. Some spot northbound freights rates have also increased by as much as $7 to $8, partially offsetting the reductions in NOLA fob values.

River Open: The U.S. Army Corps took another measurement of Lake Pepin on March 28. Readings were not especially positive and neither is the weather forecast. There remains a six-mile stretch with 20-plus inches of ice, and the forecast for next week predicts high temperatures only slightly above freezing. The ice can be broken through when it is 12 inches thick. Most sources expect barges will pass sometime in the second week of April (8-15) but there may be further delays now following the recent snowstorm.

The near-term outlook for urea prices is uncertain. We expect that NOLA prices will make a slight recovery when/if the weather improves. A stable soft trend is expected in the medium term.

UAN

The domestic UAN market was stable in March with limited new business. Most buyers feel comfortable enough with current inventories to begin the preplant season. There is minimal end-user demand as planting has yet to begin in the Corn Belt, and planting in the Delta and Southeast is just getting started.

Buyers have stepped back since urea prices have softened. Similar to ammonia, many buyers are of the opinion that UAN prices are at a peak. However, in the short term, it still seems producers are sitting comfortably enough to maintain the current price level.

Some river terminal values were slightly firmer from last month but most were steady around $205 to $220/ston fob for 32%. CF is due to increase its Cincinnati price by $5 to $205/ston fob for 32% at the beginning of April.

Ex plant (price at the plant) values in Oklahoma are unchanged from last month at $200 to $205/ston. There was some increased wheat topdressing activity early in the month, but this slowed down due to recent rains.

NOLA UAN barges traded as high as $188/ston fob in March, but fell slightly to $180 to $185 at the end of the month, showing a slight increase from a flat $180 in February.

On the East Coast, metric tons for early April arrival were sold as high as $205 mt cfr midmonth. However, this price level no longer seems repeatable with urea soft and the season delayed due to weather.

The short-term outlook for UAN prices is stable. Interior prices may firm up a bit once preplant season kicks off and buyers return to the market. However, with urea looking weak, any further price increases will likely be minor and short-lived. There is more downside risk in the medium term.

PHOSPHATES

International

A hint of weakness crept into the phosphate in March with some benchmarks starting to show some signs of softening towards the end of the month. Brazilian demand has been slow during first quarter compared to last year, although this has been countered by shuttered capacity in Florida by Mosaic, reduced Chinese exports, and Ma'aden in Saudi Arabia running at much lower rates than market expectations.

U.S. DAP/MAP export prices softened slightly to $402 to $411 mt fob, from $410 in late February, due to declining MAP values into Brazil.

Heavy swells off the coast of Morocco led to the closure of the port of Jorf Lasfar, which delayed OCP's shipments to Europe, the U.S., and Africa. Buyers became reluctant to book tons due to uncertainty over delivery. Morocco fob values were stable from last month at $400 to $435 mt.

Moving forward, the market looks toward India for demand and at Morocco and Saudi Arabia for new production. Overall Indian demand looks promising. The Indian government recently announced subsidies for P2O5 will be increased by 27% for the 2018-19 year, which will enable importers to pay higher prices for their DAP. Also, early forecasts for the monsoon are showing an average rainfall. The question then becomes whether Ma'aden will ramp up production at its new WSPC plant during Q2 as anticipated and also whether OCP's Q2 start-up of its new plant will be on schedule.

Given successful progress in these two projects we would expect some slight downside in phosphate prices moving forward.

Domestic

U.S. phosphate prices were stable to firm in March on the back of tight supply following Mosaic's closure of Plant City in December as well as delays for imports shipments and barge deliveries. End-user demand also picked up in the South with preplant applications ongoing in the Plains markets and Midsouth.

Barge prices increased on tight prompt supply to $380 to $385/ston fob NOLA for DAP at the end of March, up $5 from end February. MAP barges, on the other hand, have been in better supply following a flurry of MAP import cargoes. Prices for MAP barges are off $5 from February to $383 to $390/ston fob.

Logistic issues are a cause for concern for U.S. distributors. Between the delays in the Moroccan vessel shipments, berthings in the Gulf, and barge delays on the river, some market participants are beginning to worry that some supply will not get into position in time for spring applications. This tightness may continue to push prices higher in the short term, but it is likely that the higher prices go now, the farther they will fall after the season.

River terminal DAP prices are generally up about $5 to around $410 to $415/ston fob while MAP was relatively flat from last month around $420 to $425. End-user demand in the Corn Belt has yet to ramp up with rains and cold temperatures keeping farmers out of the field.

The outlook for phosphate prices continues to be stable to firm in the short term on the back of tight supply and the ramping up of end-user demand. However, there is more uncertainty in the medium term as the volume of imports coming in suggests importers expect a strong spring application, which may not come to fruition given how high DAP/MAP prices are and reduced corn and soybean acres.

POTASH

Midwest prices were steady to slightly firmer in March. There was little new trading activity for most of the month with most northern market participants patiently waiting for spring applications to begin. Recent wet and cold weather in the Midwest has stifled end-user demand. Weather forecasts suggest it may be another one to two weeks before widespread movement to the field restarts.

NOLA barge trade again concluded in the $235 to $240/ston fob range, flat from end February.

River terminal prices are steady in the $265 to $275/ston fob range, though quotes at $265 are becoming harder to find. Producers are holding firm to their $280 to $285/ston fob river terminal and $290 inland warehouse offers. The issues on the river do not seem to be affecting potash suppliers as most seem to have enough product in place already to begin their respective seasons.

In its 2017 annual report released March 15, K+S reported that around 500,000 t potash were produced at Bethune in 2017 and that the targeted annual technical capacity of 2 million t was achieved as scheduled at the end of 2017. Furthermore, in the company's 2017 conference call, the producer said it expects to begin potash shipments for the U.S. via its marketing agreement with Koch sometime in the second half of 2018.

The outlook for domestic potash prices continues to be stable to firm. Some slight appreciation during the season is likely. However, flat or possibly lower prices are looking likely for summer fill. But this depends on the success of the spring season and if K&S Bethune granular tons start making their way into the U.S.

**

Editor's Note: This information was supplied courtesy of Fertecon, Informa Agribusiness Intelligence.

(BAS/CZ)

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