Monsanto (NYSE:MON) held out hope its acquisition of rival Syngenta would be what turned the biotech's growth prospects around. But the Swiss seed and chemicals giant was steadfast in its opposition to the merger, and Monsanto was forced to abandon the somewhat quixotic campaign, instead using its deep pockets to buy back some $3 billion worth of company stock.
While that may help apply a salve to investors' wounds stemming from the failed merger, the biotech still has significant headwinds before it -- the agriculture market remains in a deep funk that even Monsanto thinks has another year to go before it runs its course. But the company wanted investors to take away these five points from its latest earnings report.
1. Thank goodness for America's love affair with beef.
Whatever the industry's problems are -- and they're legion, with seed sales falling across the board -- they could have been much worse had it not been for demand from U.S. consumers for protein. In particular, beef prices have remained at record levels, and ranchers have been buying up feed at a faster clip, causing corn demand to surge by an average of 1.3 billion bushels per year over the past three years.
Monsanto chairman and CEO Hugh Grant said, "More than 90% of this growth in demand over this time frame has been driven by feed and underpinned by middle-class protein consumption, which we expect to continue."
2. Higher corn costs and new technology introductions will hurt earnings this coming year.
Inventories may be getting reduced by greater feed demand, but it's not nearly enough to turn the tide yet, and corn acreages planted by farmers continues to fall. That's not changing for the 2015-2016 planting year, so Monsanto has had to scale back production, which is raising its costs by as much as $100 million for corn alone this year.
At the same time, its new Xtend soybean trait, which makes the plants resistant to both its existing Roundup herbicide and now dicamba, is launching, and that will entail further costs. Together, the two will swipe anywhere from $0.20 to $0.30 per share from earnings.
According to president and COO Brett Begemann, it's ultimately a 250 million-acre opportunity for Monsanto that will go beyond just soybeans and cotton. The Roundup Ready Xtend crop system is expected to "ramp even faster than [Monsanto's genetically engineered seed to control insects for the Latin America market] and our U.S. teams are gearing up for the largest technology launch ever, more than 3 million acres of Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans in fiscal year 2016."
3. Superweeds threaten Roundup Ready seeds
The reason Monsanto needed to come up with a new herbicide in the first place was that its glyphosate-based Roundup brand had been applied by farmers to such a degree that weeds were becoming resistant to it as well, creating what are called superweeds.
That could be a big problem, because if farmers aren't getting the results they expect from Roundup, there's little incentive for them to purchase more expensive Roundup Ready seeds, a threat that could dismantle Monsanto's whole seed and chemical empire. At the least, it will pressure Monsanto's ability to raise prices.
As Begemann noted, Monsanto's strategy is "to maintain a small premium over generics, and we have lowered prices accordingly."
4. Roundup prices are taking it on the chin, too.
There's a global glut of glyphosate as well that's depressed pricing and hurt Monsanto's sales. The biotech blames Chinese producers making the herbicide below cost, a move that's crushed sales for Monsanto.
Its agricultural productivity segment -- which is largely based on sales of Roundup -- saw revenues drop 12% in the quarter.
But senior VP and CFO Pierre Courduroux maintains a positive outlook, at least beyond next year, stating, "we are actually expecting some level of rebound in pricing in glyphosate over the next couple of years, it's not the only driver and it's not by far the only driver within the growth we are projecting in our ag productivity segments."
5. The company is maintaining unrealistic long-term earnings projections.
Despite 2015 offering basically no growth over last year, and 2016 facing the three-pronged headwinds of higher costs, pricing pressures, and currency effects -- a combination that's expected to take up to $1.55 in earnings -- Monsanto is keeping its target of doubling 2014's earnings by the end of 2019 intact.
CEO Grant maintains Monsanto's future growth is tied to its core business and the new platforms it develops, giving it the "confidence to meet our goal of more than doubling our fiscal year 2014 ongoing EPS by fiscal year 2019."
That suggests supercharged growth, which doesn't appear to hold up to scrutiny considering the health and state of the industry.
What it means for investors
Monsanto's stock has lost nearly a quarter of its value this year and is facing numerous pressure points in the year ahead. The growing global backlash against genetically modified crops also undermines the brave front the biotech is putting up, suggesting that even if the future does hold greater hope for growth, investors will likely have an opportunity to pick up shares at a much better price.