NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Archer Daniels Midland opened two of the country’s largest ethanol plants in Nebraska and Iowa six years ago, the biofuels market was on the cusp of a boom with prices and profits on the rise.
Now, the plants are more of a headache for the Chicago-based company, considered an industry pioneer, amid crushed margins and weak prices as the financial success of its almost 40-year- old business fades.
In the industry’s first major capitulation to depressed market conditions, ADM’s chief executive, Juan Luciano, on Tuesday said he would consider options, including a sale, for those two plants as well as another in Peoria, Illinois.
The three dry-mill ethanol plants, some of the largest in the country, represent just under half of ADM’s 1.8-billion-gallon-per-year U.S. ethanol capacity.
The news came as ADM blamed weaker-than-expected quarterly profits on poor ethanol margins and depressed U.S. grain exports, sending its shares tumbling almost 9 percent for their worst day in 6-1/2 years.
The review also comes as the 114-year-old company continues to shift its focus on developing new food ingredients as domestic demand for gasoline additive ethanol is forecast to remain flat over the next decade.
Still, the fact that the country’s biggest ethanol producer and a mainstay of the U.S. industry is considering options like a partnership or sale of some of its previously prized assets caught many industry experts by surprise, because ethanol prices have been withstanding the broader commodities rout in recent days.
But it may point to a gloomy long-term outlook for energy prices.
“Maybe they see it as a boom time that’s ending,” said Scott Irwin, an economist with the University of Illinois.
ADM is not alone as sinking ethanol prices and relatively stable corn prices squeeze margins and as crude oil prices tumbled to their lowest level in over a decade.
Last week, Valero Energy Corp, one of the largest U.S. producers, reported a 76 percent plunge in income from its ethanol business in the final four months of last year.
Ethanol margins have been under pressure, below break-even, as prices hold around $1.43 per gallon.
Divesting from the dry mills would leave the company with five wet mills, which experts say are more flexible and potentially a savvy way of navigating the torrid market conditions.
The five wet mills are able to churn out multiple products, including higher margin ones, like corn syrup, made from the same corn starch that produces ethanol.
Most of the country’s production comes from dry mills, which crush corn into ethanol and distillers’ grains for animal feed. They tend to be more efficient ethanol producers than wet mills, but do not offer as much flexibility.
The industry has undergone multiple busts in just over a decade, plagued by controversy over the country’s renewable fuel standard, which requires use of ethanol in gasoline.
Selling or finding partners for the plants would be a major overhaul of ADM’s ethanol business since it started production at its first mill in Decatur, Illinois.
Suitors may not have an appetite for such a major investment given the bleak outlook for energy prices and while Abengoa SA seeks a buyer for some assets, sources said.
Smaller rivals CHS Inc and Green Plains Inc have scooped up smaller, struggling plants in Illinois, Texas and Virginia in the past eight months.
But one industry executive familiar with the business estimated the Cedar Rapids and Columbus plants together could be worth as much as half a billion dollars.
“Who could write a check for a quarter of a billion dollars?” said one source familiar with ADM’s operations.
The most likely investors may be oil refiners, which have moved into the renewable fuels business in recent years, positioning themselves around policy, sources said.
Oil companies like Valero and Flint Hills Resources [FHR.UL], owned by the Koch brothers, have become industry heavyweights through acquisitions in recent years.
Editing by Josephine Mason and Leslie Adler