Monsanto slashing 2,600 jobs, buying back shares as sales fall

(Reuters) - Monsanto Co, one of the world’s largest seed and agrichemical companies, said on Wednesday that it was slashing 2,600 jobs and restructuring operations to cut costs in a slumping commodity market.

Hugh Grant, Monsanto CEO, takes part in a panel during the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The company, which said it expected low prices for agricultural products to squeeze results well into 2016, also reported a much wider quarterly loss and gave an outlook below many analysts’ expectations.

The layoffs would affect 11.6 percent of Monsanto’s regular workforce, according to the company.

The global restructuring will also include an exit from the sugar cane business and “streamlining and reprioritizing” some commercial and research and development work.

To try to shore up investor confidence, the company announced a $3 billion accelerated share repurchase program that Chairman Hugh Grant said would be completed in the next six months. Its shares, which fell as much as 4.3 percent early on Wednesday, were nearly unchanged in afternoon trading.

Monsanto said it expected to incur restructuring costs of $850 million to $900 million. When completed, the moves should help save as much as $400 million a year.

The restructuring, which caps a year when Monsanto’s sales fell more than 5 percent, comes during an agricultural slump and a currency collapse in the important Brazilian market.

Swiss rival Syngenta AG, which Monsanto had tried to acquire over the summer, has said it is trying to bolster its bottom line by selling a vegetable seed business and undertaking a $2 billion share repurchase. And DuPont, which operates agricultural seed seller DuPont Pioneer, has lowered its profit outlook.

Monsanto forecast earnings per share of $5.10 to $5.60 for its new fiscal year, which began on Sept. 1. That is well below many analysts’ expectations for more than $6.00.

The company said its losses widened to $1.06 a share in the fourth quarter ended on Aug. 31 from 31 cents a year earlier.

Sales of corn seeds and traits, Monsanto’s key products, fell 5 percent to $598 million in the quarter. And sales at the company’s agricultural productivity unit, which includes Roundup herbicide, dropped 12 percent to $1.1 billion.

Despite the bleak results, Grant said the company’s fundamentals were strong.

Monsanto will remain focused on achieving growth targets for its core seeds and traits business and be “disciplined” with its herbicide business, he said.

The company said it would still meet its target of more than doubling fiscal 2014 earnings per share, excluding special items, by 2019.

Strong demand for corn and soybeans remains a key fundamental for Monsanto, Grant said.

The company has particularly high hopes for new soybeans, corn and cotton that can be sprayed with a new combination of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup and dicamba herbicides. The combination is aimed at combating widespread weed resistance to glyphosate.

Monsanto still needs final regulatory approvals but said advance orders for “Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System” soybeans were on track to sell out by early December, company officials said. It expects pricing at a $5-to-$10-an-acre premium.

Monsanto also wants to expand sales of agricultural digital data products designed to help farmers boost crop yields. It will soon start field trials in Brazil, officials said.

While farmers have shown interest in the new software and hardware data products offered by Monsanto and several competitors, they have been reluctant to pay for them.

At Tuesday’s close, the stock had dropped roughly 30 percent from a high set last February, and the company’s growth strategy has under intense investor scrutiny after the failed Syngenta takeover attempt.

Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Mo.; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn