Russia may be closing its doors on genetically modified products, and China adopting a firmer stand on GMO corn imports from the U.S., but Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) bulls are undeterred: The stock's currently trading at its 52-week high after jumping 8% over the past three months. Interestingly, arch rival DuPont (NYSE: DD ) has seen its shares rise only about 2% during the period despite having relatively lower exposure to the controversial genetically modified seeds business. The market clearly sees greater promise in the world's largest seed company's future.
But whether Monsanto shares will continue to rise higher will be known this week when the company releases its third-quarter numbers Wednesday. Here's what you should expect from the earnings report.
Analysts see Monsanto's third-quarter earnings per share drop 6% despite a 3.7% increase in revenue. Investors have good reasons to expect tough year-over-year comparisons.
Monsanto had an exceptionally strong third quarter last year for several reasons. A combination of delayed planting in the U.S. and weather disruptions in Latin America shifted a good chunk of its corn seed sales to the third quarter last year. Meanwhile, firming glyphosate herbicide prices in the second half of 2013 helped push sales and gross profit from its agricultural productivity division, which contributes nearly 30% to the company's total revenue. To top all of that, some major tax benefits helped boost Monsanto's Q3 2013 earnings considerably. With none of these factors playing out this time, expect Monsanto's numbers to be muted.
Will this shift hurt Monsanto?
The focus will be on soybeans in Monsanto's upcoming earnings report. Some investors have been wary about the implications of a shift in farmers' preference toward soybeans over corn, especially since corn is the biggest revenue driver for the company. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects record-high soybean acreage for the year against four-year low corn acreage. DuPont also expects a softer first half, backed by lower corn planting in the U.S., Brazil, and Ukraine.
Monsanto's upcoming earnings report should give investors a clearer picture of how things are shaping up, and whether the emerging soybean-over-corn trend is hurting it. But I'm not too worried considering the company enjoys a strong lead in the soybean market. For perspective, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean trait covers nearly 90% of the total soybean acres in the U.S., and it even struck a deal with DuPont last year, allowing it to offer its Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans beginning this year.
While these factors substantiate Monsanto's dominance in the soybeans market, its second-quarter gross margin figures also proved that soybeans are as profitable to Monsanto as corn. So the company may not have much to worry about even if corn seed sales were to slip a bit.
Keep your eye on the future
With three quarters already behind, I'd expect Monsanto's upcoming earnings call to be more forward looking as it lays out its plans for rest of the year and beyond, and talks about its product pipeline.
With the Latin American planting season only a couple of months away, investors should particularly watch for Monsanto's plans and goals for Intacta RR2 PRO trait in its upcoming call. A successful launch last year resulted in the trait covering a whopping 3 million acres in Brazil. Naturally, expectations are running high, with Monsanto targeting six to eight percentage points higher soybean margin for the full financial year, thanks largely to Intacta. So keep an eye on whether the company is on track to meet those targets, and its projections for next year.
How you can gain
Until its second quarter, Monsanto projected to earn anything between $5.00 and $5.20 per share for the full financial year, suggesting at least 10% upside over 2013. Given that the company already factored in headwinds like lower corn acreage and currency fluctuations in its estimate, it is unlikely that it will need to roll back its guidance.
Monsanto is also keen on returning greater cash to shareholders in the near future, so investors shouldn't miss the company's outlook about its cash flows in the upcoming earnings call. Even if the numbers fail to excite, any hint of a dividend increase or further share buybacks this Wednesday could push Monsanto shares higher.
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