by Tim Loh
Bayer AG’s earnings report gave Chief Executive Officer Werner Baumann a welcome boost as he prepares for a key meeting Friday where some investors will vent concerns about the troubled Monsanto acquisition.
The agriculture unit posted a 5.5% jump in first-quarter sales after adjusting for currency and portfolio changes, the company said as it reported earnings for the group that beat analysts’ estimates. Bayer rose as much as 4.5% in Frankfurt, its biggest gain since early January.
Monsanto’s growth rate is welcome news for Baumann, coming despite flooding in the U.S. Midwest that hurt rivals including DowDuPont Inc. and the impact of China trade tensions on the U.S. soybean sector. He’s heading into Bayer’s annual general meeting as the German company faces a broad set of challenges, led by the mounting number of lawsuits alleging that its Roundup weedkiller is linked to cancer.
The earnings beat is a temporary distraction from the Roundup woes, according to Michael Shah, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. It’s a “much-needed boon to sentiment, yet it’s likely to be short-lived,” he said in a note.
The surprise sales jump at Monsanto came from, among other things, a strong performance in cotton seeds, according to Dennis Berzhanin, an analyst at Pareto Securities. On the pharma side, top-selling treatments Xarelto and Eylea -- which face loss of patent protection next decade -- both achieved sales growth of more than 15%. Quarterly profit was 2.55 euros a share, while analysts had estimated 2.48 euros a share. Even so, Bayer held to its group earnings target and 4% sales growth forecast for 2019.
“The results were very good for the first quarter,” Berzhanin said by phone. But “you’d expect with a strong beat that you’d see guidance lifted a little bit.”
Buying Monsanto was supposed to secure Bayer’s position in the rapidly consolidating agrochemicals market and deter outside forces from trying to split up the company, which sells everything from aspirin and cancer medicines to shoe inserts and soybean seeds. Now, investors are hoping to find out if and when the company will set aside money to settle the mountain of U.S. lawsuits surrounding Roundup, also known by its chemical name, glyphosate.
The company was facing suits from 13,400 U.S. plaintiffs as of April 11, about 20% more than in late January. That figure suggests that settlement terms could exceed $6 billion, which will continue to scare potential shareholders and as well as credit investors who want to see Bayer reduce its debt, according to Bloomberg’s Shah.
Litigation linked to the product sparked the biggest and quickest loss of value in the history of Germany’s blue-chip DAX Index, and Bayer’s shares plunged about 37% in the past 12 months before today. The legal troubles have fueled a backlash ahead of Friday’s annual general meeting as influential shareholders blame management for not foreseeing the legal risks associated with Bayer’s $63 billion takeover of Monsanto.
“A beat and unchanged guidance, while helpful, will likely not detract the market from glyphosate litigation concerns,” Peter Verdult, an analyst at Citi, said in a note.
A growing number of shareholders have said they won’t support executives and supervisory board members in a no-confidence vote at the meeting in Bonn, Germany. The vote has no legal weight, but a low enough approval rating would throw into question the future of Baumann and other leaders who orchestrated the Monsanto deal.
The company has defended the purchase, saying that its executives diligently reviewed the risks connected with Roundup and that there’s no scientific proof that glyphosate causes cancer.
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