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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Potash warehouses are almost empty amid strong demand for fertilizer, but a strike at three Canadian mines, which account for about 6 percent of world production, has not raised prices for the crop nutrient, analysts said.
Even if the strike continues for a couple of months at the mines owned by Potash Corp of Saskatchewan (POT.TO), prices for the mineral would probably rise only moderately, said Lisa Smith, senior potash analyst at consultancy Fertecon Ltd.
"I think another sharp spike is highly unlikely," Smith said in an e-mail interview.
About 500 members of the United Steelworkers union, who argue they deserve a bigger share of Potash Corp's record profits, walked off the jobs six weeks ago at the mines, which account for about 30 percent of the company's output.
Potash prices are already at a record $1,000 per tonne in many markets, more than double levels of early 2008, Smith said. The prices have stayed firm even as other fertilizers softened, she said.
"If force majeure is issued on exports (from Canada due to the strike), we could see other suppliers raise prices on new spot business, but these hikes will be moderate," Smith said, forecasting prices would end the year at $1,100 a tonne.
Record prices for grain have spurred fertilizer sales as farmers look to maximize yields.
Until now, the strike has taken place during a seasonally slow period in the fertilizer market, said Keith Carpenter, an analyst with Canaccord Adams, who noted non-unionized staff continue to pull some potash from the largest of the affected mines.
Potash Corp has released no details about how much it can produce during the strike, and has declined to comment directly on whether it has been able to fill all its fertilizer sales.
The company also declined to comment on fertilizer trade publication reports that it has bought supplies from a Russian competitor to fill sales.
"We continue to work with all of our customers to meet their supply needs," said Potash Corp spokesman Bill Johnson.
"Would some customers like to buy more tonnes than we can currently sell them? Probably yes. But it was a tight market before the strike," he said.
Carpenter said he assumes the strike will end before 2009.
"At that point, if the strike would go on, we would expect it to put added (upward) pressure to those prices, but nothing like we saw over the past year," said Carpenter, who forecasts prices of $1,200 a tonne by the end of 2009.
"If we just assume a three-month strike ... it is a blip to the company in the grand scheme of things," he said.
Potash Corp shares were up 10 percent at C$184.40 at the Toronto Stock Exchange on Friday as stock markets rallied after governments moved to shore up shaken financial markets.
Potash Corp is the largest producer in the sector and has long tried to manage supply to meet demand, and to provide stability.
Potash supplies are so tight that a case could be made to charge as much as $5,000 a tonne, the chief financial officer of Potash Corp said earlier this week.
But Wayne Brownlee said a big price hike would knock consumption lower and make prices more volatile.
"We want this to defy gravity, and we want this to be completely different from other commodities, and that means that when we have price increases, we want them to stick," Brownlee told a Credit Suisse investor conference.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Rob Wilson