UPDATE 4-Bunge profit tops estimates on strong demand

Thu Apr 28, 2011 1:19pm EDT

* Q1 EPS $1.49 vs Wall Street view for $1.31

* Boosted by agribusiness, food and ingredients

* Oilseed processing margins seen improving

* Sugar and bioenergy profit weighed down by low volumes

* Shares fall 1.4 percent after hitting 2-1/2 year high (Adds analyst's quote, details of financial results, updates share price)

By Karl Plume

CHICAGO, April 28 (Reuters) - Agricultural processor Bunge Ltd (BG.N) posted higher-than-expected first-quarter earnings on Thursday on global demand for grains and oilseeds, and its shares rose to a 2-1/2 year high.

Lofty expectations ahead of the company's earnings announcement had guided Bunge shares higher for much of the past week. In afternoon trading on Thursday, the shares were down 1 percent at $73.59 after reaching $76.01 earlier in the day.

"The stock is taking a breather. It's as simple as that. The stock was up 7 or 8 percent in a week on some pretty big expectations," said Jeff Farmer, managing director and research analyst at Jeffries & Co. "The bar was set pretty high, and there was nothing really earth-shattering in terms of new fundamental developments."

Profit in Bunge's core agribusiness segment more than doubled as demand for agricultural goods such as corn, soybeans and wheat grown in the United States and South America surged after shortfalls of crops in Russia and other exporters.

The company forecast continued strong market conditions for the division, which buys, sells, stores and processes grain and oilseeds.

"The favorable environment for our grain merchandising business should continue," Chief Financial Officer Drew Burke said on a conference call with analysts. "Global demand is good, and farmers around the world are responding to high agricultural commodity prices by increasing crop production."

Bunge reported first-quarter net profit of $232 million, or $1.49 per share, compared with $63 million, or 31 cents a share, a year ago.

Analysts, on average, were expecting earnings of $1.31 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose to $12.19 billion from $10.35 billion. Analysts, on average, had been expecting $12.10 billion.

Bunge is one of the world's largest processors of agricultural products and among the top sugar and ethanol producers in South America.

AGRIBUSINESS PROFIT SOARS

Quarterly profit in the company's agribusiness segment surged to $253 million from $122 million.

That more than offset lower results in oilseed processing stemming from weak margins and lower volumes in Europe after a severe drought in the Black Sea region last summer.

Bunge said oilseed processing margins in South America and Europe should improve later in the year, although U.S. margins would probably remain pressured by excess capacity.

Sugar and bioenergy segment earnings fell to $2 million from $5 million. Low milling volumes due to a drought-reduced Brazilian sugar cane crop last year offset record prices for the sweetener.

Profit in edible oil products rose to $34 million from $18 million.

Milling products earnings climbed to $33 million from $13 million as wheat purchases made before a spike in prices supported margins.

But Bunge cautioned that wheat milling margins would narrow as its low-cost wheat inventory is replenished at current market prices.

The fertilizer segment's loss narrowed to $5 million from $40 million in the typically low-volume first quarter. (Reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by Derek Caney, Dave Zimmerman and Lisa Von Ahn)

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