U.S. farmers are bringing in a bumper crop of corn. The Agriculture Department says it anticipates farmers to harvest 13.99 billion bushels of corn, ahead of the 13.8 billion bushels forecast made just this past September and trouncing the previous corn crop record of 13.1 billion bushels set in 2009. And that has corn processors like Archer-Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) and Cargill worried.
Despite being awash in corn that has lowered prices for them, a situation that ought to make them more competitive, they find themselves faced with the prospect of having to slash contract prices for high-fructose corn syrup to keep up with the subsidies being offered sugar producers.
There's been a strong consumer backlash against the artificial sweetener, along with aspartame and acesulfame potassium, or Ace-K, and the processors who have only just opened negotiations for next year's contracts are starting off by offering discounts of as much as 10%, according to a Reuters story yesterday. In its just-ended quarter, ADM reported operating profits for its sweeteners and starches unit tumbled 21% year over year.
No wonder. Despite it still being the most popular form of sweetener on the market today, commanding a 52% share, HFCS is under attack on several fronts. It's role in causing obesity led New York City to try to ban super-sized soft drinks and it just caused Mexico to impose a tax on soda with an eye toward cutting back consumption by as much as 24%.
Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) recently launched an ad defending its use of aspartame and created a stir when it was suggested its Mexican version of Coke would switch over to HFCS in a bid to save money. The bottler faced an outcry from consumers who wanted real sugar and the bottler was forced to relent that its "MexiCoke" would still use the real thing.
PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP) itself has moved away from HFCS, offering a "throwback" line of brands using real sugar in place of artificial sweeteners, while Dr. Pepper Snapple (NYSE:KDP) has seen its foundational Core TEN beverage program falter because they opted for the fake sweeteners to achieve their low-cal ratings. Perhaps there's a real-sugar recipe in the works, too.
Still, other consumer products companies like General Mills and ConAgra (NYSE:CAG) have removed HFCS altogether from popular lines of products, and while the latter reintroduced the sweetener for its Hunt's ketchup after customers complained about a change in taste, they now offer both varieties.
Additionally, there is growing concern about the vast bulk of all corn being grown from seed that's been genetically modified. As Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and DuPont gain greater hold over the food supply chain, it's generating a backlash as consumers reject or at least view such products in a more circumspect manner.
On top of all that, corn is the preferred method of making ethanol, a fuel source that's wreaked havoc with food prices in the past as well as in the environment. According to a new Associated Press investigation, the ethanol policies of both the Obama and Bush administrations are taking a toll, with land reserved for conservation eliminated, fragile habitats destroyed, and waterways polluted by excessive use of fertilizers.
Both ADM and Cargill are feeling the impact from lower corn syrup consumption, which Reuters says has fallen 16% in the past five years based on data compiled by Euromonitor International, while sucrose usage has risen almost 1%. Odd, really, because despite the hubbub raised over HFCS, there's no real difference between it and sucrose and how the body reacts to it or the health effects caused by it.
Although the reactionary impulse of consumers to high-fructose corn syrup may be ADM's latest headache, it's looking to a revival of its ethanol business to get it out of the doldrums. Considering the size of the bumper crop in corn, it should benefit from greater grain handling fees. Since ADM is the largest storer of grain in the U.S., volumes and profits should improve. So even where HFCS hurt its third-quarter earnings, ethanol margins recovered after a period of unprofitability.
Archer-Daniels Midland has planted the seeds for growth for tomorrow and with a multiple of less than 13 times expected earnings, despite rising in value by 66% over the past year, it can still reap a bumper crop of profits of its own. Investors willing to overlook the hand it has in high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol should still be able to realize some sweet returns