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Cargill Heads to Record Profit on Booming Agriculture Market

Cargill Heads to Record Profit on Booming Agriculture Market

Javier Blas and Michael Hirtzer

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) — Cargill Inc., the commodity superpower that’s the largest private U.S. company, is emerging as one of the biggest winners of the boom in global agricultural markets as it barrels toward its most profitable year ever in its 156-year run.

The company made almost $4.3 billion in net income during the first nine months of its fiscal year, according to data released by the trading house to tap the bond market. That figure already surpasses its best ever total annual profit.

Many in the market suspected that Cargill was performing well in the commodity boom, but this is the first time that actual data has become available. Cargill broke with a more than two-decade tradition in 2020 and stopped releasing its results publicly. It still shares financial results with its bankers and others. Ahead of a bond sale last week, the company opened its books to credit investors and credit rating agencies, disclosing the extent of its earnings.

Surging demand for meat, corn and soybeans has sent agricultural markets skyrocketing, sparking a bonanza for commodity producers and traders. While that means soaring profits for the likes of Cargill and its rivals, it also stokes the prospect of worsening food inflation at a time when supply chains are seizing up and the world is grappling with a hunger crisis.

The strong results at Cargill echo a trend across the commodity trading industry, which has profited handsomely from volatile markets over the last year. For example, Vitol Group, the world’s largest independent oil trader, saw record earnings in calendar 2020, while Trafigura Group, the second-largest independent oil and metals trader, also reported unprecedented profits in its financial year to September 2020.

On top of the blockbuster net income, Cargill told bond investors and rating agencies that its underlying earnings, or Ebitda, jumped to more than $7.1 billion during the first nine months of its fiscal year, also on pace to reach a record high, according to two separate copies of the data seen by Bloomberg News.

Fitch Ratings Inc. said in a note to clients it expected Cargill to report full-year Ebitda “at least in the upper $8 billion range,” which would be equal to an increase of more than 30% from the $6.3 billion it posted in fiscal 2020. S&P Global Ratings made a similar call, saying: “We expect 2021 adjusted Ebitda will likely grow to over 30% above our prior expectations of low single-digit percent growth.”

In response to a request for comment, a Cargill spokesperson said the company didn’t share detailed financial information publicly.

Cargill reported net income of just above $3 billion in its 2020 fiscal year. The company’s best ever performance was set in fiscal 2008, when it reported net profit of $3.95 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. The fiscal year runs through May.

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Bet on Protein

The profit boom vindicates the strategy of David MacLennan, who since taking over as chief executive in 2013 has sold under-performing businesses and bet heavily on demand for protein, including beef, chicken and fish.

With some 155,000 employees across 70 countries, Cargill is the “C” in the vaunted ABCD group of merchant companies that have dominated grain trading for a century. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. is the “A,” Bunge Ltd. is the “B,” and Louis Dreyfus Co. is the “D.”

Cargill, which counts 14 billionaires among its ruling circle, is owned by the heirs of William Wallace Cargill, who founded the company more than 150 years ago in the American Midwest. The families are split into two branches: the Cargills and the MacMillans. On top of the family owners, senior management and other employees control a small stake in the company.

The Cargill and MacMillan families, plus staff who own shares, received a record $1.13 billion in dividends in the 2020 fiscal year, and another $829 million in the first nine months of the current fiscal, according to the accounts that Cargill shared with bondholders. At the current pace, 2021 payouts may reach the record set in 2020.

The bumper dividends in the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years are likely to help the families continue resisting the temptation of taking Cargill public, as rivals have have done. However, with each new generation — now in the seventh — the stake of each shareholder gets thinner. At some large family-controlled businesses, that scenario has led to pressure for a sale or initial public offering that would provide a windfall for members.

Beef and Corn

The rating agencies pointed to two big factors behind the profit boom: strong beef processing margins and unprecedented corn demand in China.

“The solid underlying structural demand shift for food, fuel and feed within a tight commodity supply environment should provide support for good profit generation by global agribusiness companies,” Fitch said in a note.

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Although better known for its sway in grain and oilseeds markets, Cargill is also a large beef processor, particularly in the U.S., where it ranks among the biggest. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many American beef processors closed their slaughter houses as the virus infected hundreds of workers. That allowed the few companies such as Cargill that managed to keep their plants open to profit from extraordinary margins.

Cargill has also profited from its traditional merchant business in grains and oilseeds as Chinese demand created what the company described as “profitable trading opportunities.”

Beijing has been buying record amounts of U.S. corn as it tries to rebuild pork production after farmers had to sacrifice millions of hogs in 2019 to stop an outbreak of the deadly African swine fever virus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that China is importing 26 million metric tons of corn in the 2020-2021 season, up from just 7.6 million in 2019-2020.

(Updates with dividends in the 13th paragraph.)

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