(Recasts, adds 2020 outlook, adds CEO quote, adds background, adds byline)
CHICAGO, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Agricultural commodities trader Bunge Ltd reported a stronger-than-expected quarterly profit on Wednesday as rising crop prices boosted farmer sales in South America and swelled margins in its large agribusiness segment, sending shares up more than 3% in pre-market trading.
But uncertainty about global trade and demand for Bunge’s food and feed products clouded the outlook for this year, with 2020 earnings per share seen about flat.
The company cautioned that agribusiness results could slip this year as margins shift depending on crop sizes, farmer sales and the implementation of an interim U.S.-China trade deal.
Bunge and its agribusiness peers Archer Daniels Midland Co , Cargill Inc and Louis Dreyfus Co have been hit hard by a years-long crop supply glut followed by a tit-fot-tat tariff war between the United States and China that disrupted global trade flows.
The companies, known as the ABCDs of global grain trading, have also seen livestock feed demand dented by a deadly hog disease in China known as African swine fever, or ASF. The full impact of China’s coronavirus outbreak on Bunge’s business also remains unknown.
“We’re still faced with uncertainty in 2020. We expect markets to remain volatile as long as U.S. and China trade tensions and ASF continue to create uncertainty,” Chief Executive Officer Gregory Heckman said on a call with analysts.
“It’s too early to tell what, if any, impact the coronavirus situation will have on our markets or how developments in Argentina may affect the industry this year,” he said, referring to changes in Argentine agricultural export tax policy.
Bunge’s agribusiness segment, its largest in terms of revenues and volumes, gained in the fourth quarter on strong vegetable oil demand and good South American oilseed crushing margins.
Accelerated farmer crop sales in Argentina ahead of anticipated increases to export taxes boosted the grains unit, which reported positive adjusted earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margins compared with a negative margin last year.
Adjusted EBIT for the agribusiness rose over three-fold to $177 million in the fourth quarter.
Bunge said net sales fell to $10.78 billion in the quarter ended Dec.31, from $11.54 billion a year earlier year.
Adjusted net income attributable to the company was $191 million, compared with $18 million a year earlier.
Excluding items, the company earned $1.27 per share, above analysts’ average estimate of 32 cents per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. (Additional reporting by Arunima Kumar and Shradha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and David Gregorio)
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