Sunday, January 31

Week 239 - The “Big 6” Agronomy Companies Are Starting To Merge

Situation: For the past 10 years, companies in the “Basic Materials and Energy” industries have made massive investments to support China’s infrastructure buildout. More than 10 million people a year in China moved from rural poverty to cities during that time. But now China’s government sees little need for more construction projects and manufacturing capacity. Labor costs have increased and more emphasis is being placed on satisfying the need for consumer goods. China is no longer an emerging market. Other countries in Southeast Asia are able to produce goods more cheaply and compete with China for market share. The problem now is that the worldwide supply chain for energy, basic materials, and food commodities is twice the size it was 10 yrs ago but the market for all those goods is only a little larger. Production can’t suddenly be cut in half which means that excess goods have to go into storage. There has never been a commodity crash as big as this. To make matters worse, the world has yet to shake off lingering effects of the Lehman Panic. People got by with less for so long that they’ve unlearned the habit of casual shopping. But food? Who guessed that consumers would even cut back on that? Many families in North America are losing interest in foods that aren’t healthy, farm goods that aren’t produced in an environmentally sensitive manner, and meat that isn’t produced with due consideration to every farm animal’s well being. That means the grocery store bill is larger every week for those families but they’re seeking out grocery stores that offer those products. “Factory Farming” is going out of style. 

Mission: Assemble growth-related metrics for the 6 largest companies that produce seeds, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Execution: Dow Chemical (DOW) and duPont (DD) have decided to merge operations then spin off 3 companies. There will be one new company formed for agriculture, one for specialty chemicals, and and one for commodity chemicals. Syngenta (SYT) and Monsanto (MON) tried to merge, then broke off talks, and are now talking again. Bayer (BAYRY) and BASF (BASFY) have also held preliminary talks with potential partners. Let’s see what makes some of these 6 companies a target for purchase by other agronomy firms.

Administration: All of these companies are struggling. None of the US companies that S&P analyzes (MON, DD, DOW) has been able to grow Tangible Book Value (TBV) over the past 10 yrs, and stock prices average more than 20 times TBV (see Columns P-R in the Table). The main factor keeping these companies away from insolvency is the value of their strong brands. Risk metrics shown in the Table are very concerning, such as total return during the 2011 stock market correction (Column D), 5-yr Beta (Column I), and the BMW Method’s projection of price loss in a bear market compared to the 16-yr price trendline (Column O). On the other hand, the rewards to investors who bought any of these stocks at the market peak on September 1, 2000, have been quite satisfactory (see Columns C and M in the Table). Average dividend yield is ~3.4% and average dividend growth is 10.5% (see Columns G and H in the Table). The two weakest companies are duPont and Dow Chemical, so it is not surprising that those are the first to combine operations.

Bottom Line: Agronomy stocks aren’t for the faint of heart. You’d have to be a speculator who is able to weather volatility over at least two market cycles before reaping your reward. Now these stocks are on the bargain shelf, being forced to merge operations--which is just what an investor like Warren Buffett loves to see happening. Monsanto (MON) is the only one that might be a suitable stock to own for someone who is not a financial services professional. 

Risk Rating: 7

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into MON and also own shares of DD.

Note: Metrics are current for the Sunday of publication; metrics in red denote underperformance vs. our key benchmark, the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (VBINX).

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