CALGARY, Alberta (TheStreet) -- Fertilizer concern Agrium (AGU) capped a high-drama year full of collapsing end-markets and hostile takeover campaigns by saying the turnaround in its business had begun in earnest.The Calgary-based company offered a fairly bullish outlook without providing detailed guidance. "The fourth quarter of 2009 saw the initial stages of recovery in the crop input sector," said Agrium CEO Mike Wilson in a statement similar to the one he gave when the company reported third-quarter results. "Agrium is looking forward to a significant recovery in the crop input markets in 2010," Wilson continued. Still, looking back, Agrium's fourth-quarter numbers were a little strange. The company said it would have posted a profit of 53 cents a share if it weren't for items such as a $35 million loss on hedging positions -- mostly natural gas, a key ingredient in the production of nitrogen fertilizers -- and $34 million to pay for "stock-based compensation." That adjusted bottom-line number appeared to surpass -- by a wide margin -- the consensus Wall Street target, which called for 24 cents a share. But both hedging and compensation are standard costs of doing business that analysts typically bake into their forecasting models. Taking the items into account, Agrium's net income was 19 cents a share, or $30 million, less than the Wall Street target by a nickel. A year ago, the company posted net income of $124 million, or 79 cents a share. Indeed, year-over-year comparisons remain unkind. Revenue fell 24% to $1.5 billion in the fourth quarter, slightly below the consensus estimate of $1.55 billion.
Investors lifted Agrium shares Tuesday morning by as much as 5%. At 11 a.m. EDT, the stock was changing hands at $60.08, up $2.31, or 4%. Pricing remains of supreme importance to Agrium and its fertilizer peers. On Monday, the North American consortium of potash producers, Canpotex, struck a deal with Chinese buyers to sell a load of potash during the first quarter at "competitive prices," unable to negotiate for a higher price than the low benchmark set in December by Russian producers. Canpotex also includes mega-potash producers Mosaic ( MOS) and Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan ( POT). Agrium, however, indicated in its fourth-quarter press release that potash buying by North American farmers -- as they prepare for the coming planting season in the spring -- increased in late December and continued to improve into 2010. Agrium noted that most analysts following agribusiness believe that a delayed U.S. harvest this fall will cause farmers to load up on fertilizers this spring. Conversely, Agrium argued, huge corn yields in the U.S. sucked so much nutrient out of the bread-basket earth in 2009 that farmers will need to replenish the soil with more fertilizer this coming planting season. According to Agrium, low fertilizer inventories across the board, combined with heightened demand, will support prices in 2010. Said company boss Wilson in his prepared remarks: "We are seeing increasing signs that demand for crop nutrients and other crop inputs will be strong in the coming spring, despite some recent weakening in crop prices following the revised yield estimates from the USDA." About its ongoing effort to subsume CF Industries ( CF), Agrium said it "continues to be fully committed to acquiring" the Deerfield, Ill., rival and "intends to continue to press the board of directors of CF to engage in negotiations with Agrium." Agrium will attempt to foist two dissident candidates onto CF's board at the latter's annual meeting this year, which CF has yet to schedule. -- Written by Scott Eden in New York