Bunge makes its move

Bunge hit the news this week when the company announced that it was buying 70 per cent of IOI Loders Croklaan BV from IOI Corp for close to one billion dollars. Loders Croklaan BV is one of the leading global suppliers of specialty oils and fats to the processed food industry. It has manufacturing operations in the Netherlands, the US, Malaysia and Canada.

Malaysia’s IOI Group bought Loders from Unilever in November 2002. Since then, the unit has grown from three to seven processing plants and earnings have quadrupled. According to a filing with the Malaysian Stock Exchange, IOI Group will record a gain of about 2.5 billion ringgit ($595 million) from the sale.

Bunge Ltd said that it was buying the stake as part of a strategy to invest in higher-margin businesses such as food ingredients and natural flavourings. The company denied that the purchase was a defensive move against being taken over themselves.

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the various strategies that different trade houses are following in an attempt to improve margins: Glencore is concentrating on logistics, Cargill on processing, and ADM on ingredients. I added, rather cheekily, that Dreyfus is trying a little bit of everything while Bunge was wondering whether they might be worth more as part of a bigger organisation.

The fact that Bunge’ share price fell on the Loders announcement seemingly confirmed that the stock market had been wondering the same thing. However, there was also a suggestion that the fall in the share price might have at least been partly related to the fact that Bunge was increasing their exposure to palm oil.

Some investors may be worried about the worsening economics of the industry. Palm oil stocks are soon forecast to top two million tonnes, and crude palm oil prices are down twelve per cent so far this year. Perhaps more importantly, palm oil is the one commodity that everyone loves to hate.

In 2016 the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) temporarily excluded IOI Group from membership over concerns regarding its palm oil purchases from third party suppliers. The issue attracted a lot of media attention at the time and all the major food companies cancelled their purchase contracts with the group. (Cargill held out for a while, arguing that they could make more of an impact by continuing to work with the supplier, but in the end they also caved in under media pressure.)

The RSPO reinstated IOI Group in August 2016 and the food companies slowly and reluctantly resumed sourcing their palm oil from them. In a statement at the time Unilever said, “We are pleased to see the progress IOI has made so far, in particular, on third party suppliers, independent verifications, and increased transparency.”

Greenpeace, one of the more aggressive civil society operators, said that over the years IOI has produced “a string of commitments about ending the destruction (of forests), but none of them were properly implemented and failed to make a difference on the ground.” However, they added that losing big customers “put IOI under enormous pressure and was instrumental in bringing about (a) change in direction”.

As you might expect there was considerably more media coverage when the RSPO excluded IOI Group from membership than when they let them back in. This is partly standard media bias: bad news sells more advertising than good news. But it also standard civil society bias: bad news (about evil companies destroying rain forests) encourages more donations than good news (about companies working to protect them).

Bunge’s purchase of Loders reduces the chances that they will be taken over themselves, and it is understandable that the stock market was disappointed by the news. However, it is not certain that a bidder would have in any case placed a high value on the company given its exposure to the Brazilian sugarcane sector at a time of low prices for both sugar and energy.

By making this move Bunge has done two things. First, they have increased their exposure to the world’s lowest cost—but most controversial—vegetable oil. Second, they have taken a strategic step along the path from trading to processing, and from commodities to ingredients. These moves are risky, but so often in business the biggest risk is not to move at all.

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