Canada's major potash exporters have agreed to pay nearly $100-million (U.S.) to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of U.S. farmers and potash buyers alleging the companies acted like a cartel and drove up prices for the vital crop nutrient.
Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, Calgary-based Agrium Inc., and Plymouth, Minn.-based Mosaic Co., were among seven of the defendants accused in lawsuits filed in Illinois in 2008 of using their hold on 70 per cent of the global potash market to co-ordinate cuts in production that inflated prices to U.S. buyers. All the companies deny any wrongdoing despite agreeing to settle.
Potash Corp., the world's largest fertilizer maker, said Wednesday that it settled eight private U.S. antitrust lawsuits for a total of $43.75-million (U.S). Mosaic also agreed to pay $43.75-million, while Agrium agreed to a $10-million settlement.
The three companies are members of the Canadian potash exporting and marketing group known as Canpotex, which the plaintiffs alleged allowed the companies to share confidential information and made agreements with the Russians and Belarussians. The companies mine for their potash in Saskatchewan, which is home to the world's largest reserves of the nutrient, and together they account for about one-third of global potash output.
The other defendants, major Russian and Belarussian potash producers, settled the claims against them in September.
In a press release, Bill Doyle, the president and chief executive office of Potash Corp., lashed out at the lawsuits. He said the allegations were "without merit" and that the company settled to avoid being distracted by a lengthy and expensive legal fight.
Big producers such as Potash Corp. have long calibrated output with market demand, and announced temporary shutdowns at some mines in recent months as prices fell. As well as supporting prices, the practice imposed discipline on the industry through decades of oversupply in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, after some of the world's largest mines were built.
"I actually think it's a non-event. I don't think it's going to change the industry at all," said Joel Jackson, an analyst with BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc.
The lawsuit was filed in 2008, at a time when potash prices were at the top of a five-year run. They have since slid to about half where they were at their peak.
In an unusually blunt statement, Mr. Doyle said the case is an example of the "abuse of class actions" in the United States, where "self-interested" plaintiffs' lawyers enlist clients to "assert meritless claims" and force companies to "face the enormous burden, distraction and expense of litigation" despite doing nothing wrong.
"This is simply a wasteful and unnecessary cost of doing business in the United States," the Potash CEO said.
In an interview, San Francisco-based plaintiffs' lawyer Bruce Simon dismissed Mr. Doyle's comments and praised the settlements, which were reached even though, unlike other high-profile antitrust lawsuits, no government or regulator in North America or elsewhere had decided to launch its own investigation.
"It's a great result for small businesses and farmers in the United States who will get some cash to help them out in these bad times," he said, acknowledging that the settlement does not force any changes on the companies' future business practices.
Potash is one of three key crop nutrients – the other two are nitrogen and phosphate – that are increasingly vital components of agriculture as farmers struggle to boost yields, especially in countries where standards of living are rising rapidly, such as China and India.