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As trade war drags on, new Bunge CEO looks to avoid ‘stroke-of-the-pen’ risk

August 21, 2019
Food & Drink

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A year removed from a losing bet that the U.S.-China trade war would be promptly resolved, global grains trader Bunge Ltd is facing an even more uncertain business environment, with a new chief executive who is determined not to get burned again.

Gregory Heckman, who joined Bunge’s board late last year and took on the CEO role in January, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday improving risk management at the 200-year-old company is a key focus as he oversees a portfolio review that is expected to last through the middle of 2020.

As the trade war enters its second year with no sign of a resolution, White Plains, New York-based Bunge and other grain traders are also navigating weather-reduced crops in the United States, a herd-culling hog disease in China that has slashed demand for soybeans and currency gyrations that have fueled uncertainty in top soymeal exporter Argentina and elsewhere.

Bunge’s surprise loss in last year’s second quarter, when bets on a quick trade war resolution turned sour, and another loss-triggering bet in the fourth quarter as trade tensions eased is something Heckman is determined to avoid.

“We want to avoid any surprises from stroke-of-the-pen risk,” Heckman said, referring to unforeseen risks such as abrupt government policy shifts or tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Investors last year pointed to a culture at Bunge where traders took on more risk compared with rival trading houses as contributing to the loss.

“While we have to make certain decisions to manage the inherent risks and protect the margins in our crushing and our distribution and milling assets, we try to absolutely stay out of the way of any big changes that can happen,” Heckman said.

The company is improving coordination between its risk management and commercial teams and doing more scenario analysis to make sure that any bets are appropriately weighed against earnings prospects, he said.

Grain merchants like Bunge and rivals Archer Daniels Midland Co, Cargill Inc and Louis Dreyfus Co, known as the ABCD quartet of global grain trading giants, have already been restructuring their businesses and cutting costs after a years-long crop supply glut that thinned margins and sapped profits.

Heckman joined Bunge’s board as part of a deal to ease activist investor pressure on the company following a string of weak results that made it vulnerable to takeover attempts by ADM and global commodities trader Glencore Plc.

Heckman, a founding partner of private investment firm Flatwater Partners and the former CEO of grains trader Gavilon Group, declined to comment on whether the company was currently in takeover talks.

Rising market uncertainty has stiffened near term earnings headwinds for Bunge since it reported better-than-expected second-quarter earnings last month, Heckman said.

Bunge left its full-year 2019 earnings guidance unchanged when it announced second-quarter results on July 31, but warned that uncertainty from African swine fever and the trade war meant more of the profit for the second half of 2019 would come in the fourth quarter.

“We thought that our (second-half 2019) earnings would be largely weighted to Q4. It’s probably even more so now,” Heckman said.

Bunge is looking to streamline the company’s operations and maximize profit as part of its ongoing portfolio optimization program. It unveiled a new global operating model in May and announced last week that its headquarters would move to St. Louis from White Plains, New York.

The effort has also found a new home for Bunge’s sugar business, long a drag on earnings, in a Brazilian bioenergy joint venture with BP Plc.

The company is actively working on “a number of other projects” that will be announced as they are completed, Heckman said. He declined to elaborate on which businesses would be impacted.

“We’ve given ourselves an internal deadline to have the majority of the portfolio transformation and optimization work completed by the end of Q2 2020,” he said.

By Karl Plume

Source: Reuters

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