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By Karl Plume
May 1 (Reuters) - Harsh U.S. weather and geopolitical turmoil in Ukraine have humbled a third global grain trader as Bunge Ltd reported a surprise loss for the first quarter on Thursday, saying it had bet wrongly on a drop in wheat prices.
The world’s biggest agricultural traders, including Archer Daniels Midland Co and Cargill Inc, were slammed by a series of exceptional events in the first part of the year, from a severe winter “polar vortex” in the United States to the rejection of corn imports in China.
Bunge, which swung to a $27 million loss in the three months through March 31, cited a 55 percent slump in its trading and distribution division as the biggest drag, saying that tumult in Ukraine had upended its strategy.
The company’s shares fell 5 percent in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
“We expected a lower price environment, particularly in wheat, which did not materialize,” Bunge Chief Executive Soren Schroder said. “Political turmoil in the Black Sea and deteriorating winter wheat conditions in the U.S. were the primary catalysts for the wheat rally, which ignored the more-than-adequate global stocks.”
The three companies and Louis Dreyfus Corp - known as the ABCDs - dominate global grain trading and had been expected to benefit from bumper harvests just a year after the worst U.S. drought since the Dust Bowl days.
Instead, they have emerged as some of the most evident losers from this year’s unexpected commodity market volatility, which has carved a sharp divide across the trading industry.
Chicago wheat prices plunged to a 3-1/2 year low in January on abundant global stocks before surging some 30 percent over two months as frigid weather threatened the U.S. crop and as tensions in Ukraine escalated.
On a per-share basis, Bunge lost 18 cents, missing analysts’ expectations of a $1.40-per-share profit on average. It had earned a profit of $170 million a year earlier.
Profit in its agribusiness unit, including trading and distribution, plummeted to $79 million in the quarter.
Earlier this week, ADM reported a 19-percent decline in its core grain merchandising and handling operations, following Cargill’s 28-percent drop in overall profit early in April.
Bunge’s sugar-milling business, which it has been trying to sell since late in 2013, was hurt by hedging losses and higher milling costs due to an earlier start to Brazil’s milling season this year.
Its sugar and bioenergy segment lost $64 million in the quarter, after earning a profit of $23 million a year earlier, while food and ingredients’ profit slipped 8 percent to $54 million and fertilizer profit doubled to $6 million. (Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bernadette Baum)