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PotashCorp wants to buy ICL despite obstacles

Saskatoon fertilizer giant wants to buy at least majority stake

Fertilizer producer PotashCorp says it is determined to buy most, if not all, of ICL Israel Chemicals Ltd. and that stiff local opposition to such a takeover is based on unfounded fears.

Saskatoon-based PotashCorp, the world's largest producer by capacity of its namesake crop nutrient, aims to boost its 14 per cent stake in ICL Israel Chemicals, the world's sixth-largest potash producer, to at least 51 per cent and preferably 100 per cent.

"The opposition you're seeing now is fear of the unknown," PotashCorp CFO Wayne Brownlee said on Tuesday in remarks at the BMO Capital Markets Global Metals and Mining conference in Hollywood, Florida, distributed via webcast.

The largest shareholder in ICL is the conglomerate Israel Corp. Ltd., which owns more than 52 per cent, according to Thomson Reuters data. The Israeli government holds a golden share in ICL Israel Chemicals, giving it the authority to decide on any takeover move on the company.

A spokesman for Israel Corp said there are no talks between the companies currently because PotashCorp must first secure approval from the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to assemble a coalition government after January's general election.

Brownlee said PotashCorp has not been talking with stakeholders in ICL recently because of the election.

Workers at Israel Chemicals have said they would hold protests in coming weeks to try to prevent a deal, which they fear will lead to layoffs.

Addressing those concerns on Tuesday, Brownlee said PotashCorp is not interested in cutting production or employment levels at ICL. He said its rationale is to become the "lowest cost provider" of potash "to anywhere in the world."

PotashCorp does not want just to increase its stake in ICL and remain a passive investor, Brownlee said.

Buying ICL, which has a market cap of nearly US$17 billion, would represent the largest foreign takeover of an Israeli company.

Focus on volume

Brownlee also said PotashCorp's focus in general for the next five years will be on building up potash sales volume.

"Right now the message is we're really seeking volume growth as opposed to seeing price growth," Brownlee said. "That's our key objective at this stage."

Canpotex, the offshore selling agency for western Canadian potash producers PotashCorp, Mosaic Co. and Agrium, has long used its bargaining clout to drive the highest price, and PotashCorp regularly idles its mines in times of high supply or lower demand.

But key importers China and India bruised the earnings of potash producers in the second half of 2012 by staying out of the market altogether.

There also may be stiff competition coming from new potash mines under construction in Western Canada by Germany's K+S AG and BHP Billiton, although BHP has not yet given final approval to its project.

To head off new competitors, analysts have mused about the possible merits of Canpotex switching to a volume emphasis.

PotashCorp spokesman Bill Johnson said Brownlee's comments do not suggest a change in strategy as the company will continue to match supply to demand. But he said the company has noted that volume growth has been flat for five or six years and wants to change that trend, with the company expanding its mines and demand rising.

Mosaic CEO Jim Prokopanko, speaking at the same conference, said demand from India has been picking up lately, and Canpotex could sell more than the 1.1 million tonnes of potash in 2013 that its latest supply contract with India calls for.

-- Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent based in Winnipeg.



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