By Karl Plume
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Severe U.S. weather likely dented earnings for large grain companies including Archer Daniels Midland Co and Bunge Ltd for a second straight quarter, adding to headwinds from a still-unresolved U.S.-China trade war, analysts and economists said.
ADM and Bunge, as well as peers Cargill Inc and Louis Dreyfus Co, known as the ABCD quartet of global grain trading giants, faced processing-plant downtime, rail, and barge shipping delays and other supply uncertainty this spring as historic floods ravaged the central United States.
The weather woes are heaping more pain on the battered U.S. agricultural sector already hard-hit by a years-long crop supply glut and the U.S.-China trade war now entering its second year. The tariffs China imposed on soybean exports from the United States in retaliation for U.S. duties on Chinese goods curbed shipments of the most valuable U.S. export crop.
The excessive rains and flooding could also have a lasting impact on the grain merchants, whose latest round of quarterly earnings will start this week. ADM and Cargill are viewed as particularly vulnerable due to their outsized U.S. footprints. Reduced U.S. corn and soybean plantings will likely cut available crop supplies in the United States, potentially driving up raw material costs and squeezing margins.
“They thrive on volumes and margins and both of those are going to be depressed in the coming year with the bushels being smaller and the margins likely not being there,” said Kevin McNew, chief economist with Farmers Business Network. “Export business is just going to fall off the cliff, especially for corn.”
The U.S. corn crop was more affected by floods than soybeans because soy can be planted later in the season.
The first of the companies scheduled to report is privately held Cargill, which announces fiscal fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.
The results will cover the March-to-May period, when flooding disrupted grain movement, including export shipments, and the year’s second “bomb cyclone” blizzard temporarily shuttered at least six Cargill grain handling facilities and a beef processing plant.
Cargill and ADM both own barge companies that haul grain and other products on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Grain barge movement so far this year is down about 37% from a year ago, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data, due largely to prolonged river closures triggered by floods.
Cargill is expected to report weaker results compared with the very strong earnings of the year-ago quarter, due partly to expected lower profit in its origination and processing unit, said Bill Densmore, senior director of corporate ratings at Fitch Ratings.
Bunge and ADM will follow, with second-quarter results covering April, May and June scheduled for release on July 31 and Aug. 1, respectively. Privately held Louis Dreyfus is expected to issue interim first-half results in the autumn.
Shares of publicly traded ADM and Bunge are hovering just above three-year lows notched this spring as mounting concerns about U.S. plantings and trade fueled investor nervousness.
With its concentration of assets in the United States and its large U.S. ethanol business, ADM was likely hit harder by adverse U.S. weather than Bunge, analysts said.
ADM cited poor U.S. weather for a nearly $60 million drop in operating profit in its first quarter and warned in April that lingering weather impacts would cut second-quarter earnings by $20 million to $30 million. Some analysts expect ADM to post as large a hit to second-quarter earnings as in the first quarter as adverse weather stretched through the spring season.
“ADM’s first-quarter estimate of $50-60 million seems like a good starting point” for the second-quarter impact, said Seth Goldstein, analyst with Morningstar.
ADM’s soy processing, ethanol and sweeteners and starches units may post lower margins, and smaller corn and soybean crops will hurt its grain origination business, said Heather Jones, founder and senior analyst with Heather Jones Research LLC.
The price of corn, the most common feedstock for U.S. ethanol makers, has surged as U.S. farmers struggled to plant the 2019 crop due to a historically soggy spring. Cash corn premiums in parts of the eastern Midwest, where planting delays were most acute, are at a six-year high. Soybean prices hit a one-year top last week.
“Bunge is less exposed, but higher bean costs would squeeze soy crush margins in the U.S.,” Jones said. Bunge is the world’s largest soybean processor.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)