Potash: The Folly Of Privatization
Privatizing Potash was a Costly Mistake
The greatest tragedy in BHP Billiton’s $38.6-billion (U.S.) bid for the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PCS) is that the Government of Saskatchewan previously sold PCS for just $630 million. This privatization was the worst fiscal decision in the province’s history and has been aggravated by subsequent royalty giveaways to private potash companies.
PCS was created in 1975 as a provincial Crown corporation. The Saskatchewan government privatized it in 1989, selling all of its shares by 1994.
Presumably, the proceeds were deducted from the provincial deficit. Borrowing $630 million at 10 per cent interest, compounded over two decades, would have added $4.2 billion of provincial debt by now.
In fact, provincial bond rates have fallen far below 10 per cent since the early 1990s. Also, had PCS shares not been sold, dividend payments to the government would have partly offset interest charges on its additional borrowing. Therefore, $4.2 billion is a very optimistic estimate of privatization’s fiscal benefit.
The fiscal cost of privatization is the amount that PCS would be worth had it remained a Crown corporation. Since privatization, PCS has acquired additional potash mines in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, phosphate and nitrogen facilities in the U.S. and Trinidad, and shares in other fertilizer companies.
During the 1990s, Crown corporations were encouraged to invest outside the province. Therefore, PCS could have made the same acquisitions and developed along the same lines had it remained a Crown corporation. If so, the fiscal cost of privatization is at least $40 billion (the Canadian-dollar value of BHP’s offer), which is about 10 times the maximum fiscal benefit.
Of course, privatization supporters would claim that PCS has been better managed as a private company. Had it remained a Crown corporation, PCS might have lacked the initiative or financial ability to expand.
However, the mines that PCS owned in 1989 still account for 80 per cent of its potash production and capacity. Since 70 per cent of the company’s current gross margin is from potash (rather than phosphate and nitrogen), these mines still provide at least 55 per cent of overall profits today.
If PCS had simply held onto those historic assets, it would now be worth more than half of today’s value. Even assuming that PCS would have completely stagnated as a Crown corporation after 1989, the fiscal cost of privatization was still more than five times the maximum fiscal benefit.
Depending upon which assumptions one accepts, the costs of privatization exceeded the benefits by between $18 billion and $36 billion. In other words, the Saskatchewan government gave up between $17,000 and $35,000 for every man, woman and child in the province.
Saskatchewan’s potash reserves still belong to the public. Unfortunately, the provincial government has been slashing the royalties charged to PCS and other companies that mine these reserves. Saskatchewan’s misguided royalty holidays on increased potash production in 2003 and 2005 simply prompted the U.S. and New Brunswick to cut their potash royalties.
This race to the bottom has robbed Saskatchewan residents of an appropriate return on their resource. The potash industry extracted the same tonnage from Saskatchewan in 2005 and 2008. Entirely due to price increases, this output was worth $4.7 billion more in 2008 than in 2005.
Most of this gain should have accrued to the people of Saskatchewan, who own the resource. Yet provincial potash royalties rose by only $1.1 billion between the 2005 and 2008 fiscal years.
The provincial government then refunded much of this money to PCS and other potash companies following the economic crisis. As a result, royalty revenues actually turned negative in the 2009 fiscal year, even though the dollar value of potash sold from Saskatchewan remained higher than it had been in any year before 2007.
Of course, profits in excess of royalties are subject to corporate income tax. However, the Canadian government is slashing its corporate tax rate from 29 per cent in 2000 to just 15 per cent by 2012.
Between 2006 and 2008, Saskatchewan cut its rate from 17 to 12 per cent. Wholly or partially reversing these corporate tax breaks would give the public a more significant fraction of future potash profits.
The prospect of a PCS takeover underscores the folly of having privatized Saskatchewan’s crown jewel. Whether or not a takeover occurs, governments should strengthen their royalty and tax regimes to collect a fairer share of potash revenue for the public.
This article was originally published on August 27, 2010 on the Progressive Economics Forum