By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Bunge Ltd's new chief executive signaled plans to shed its loss-making Brazilian sugar milling business, making Bunge the first major merchant to consider exiting the one-hot sector that has swallowed billions of dollars of investment.
Bunge reported a quarterly net loss of $137 million as the sugar unit dragged on earnings. Shares fell 1.4 percent after the loss, and a sharp revenue drop that surprised analysts.
Chief Executive Soren Schroder said the company was launching "a thoughtful comprehensive review" of its Brazilian milling operations, which have suffered from poor crop weather and low global sugar prices.
The company has not yet discussed a potential sale of the milling unit with any suitors, Schroder later told Reuters in an interview. The replacement value of its milling assets is more than $3 billion, he said. Schroder, who took over as CEO in June, gave no time frame for the review.
It has been about six years since Bunge and other global firms including oil major BP PLC and Singapore-listed Olam raced to grab a share of the sweetener business in Brazil. The companies bought up mills and farms in a bid to vertically integrate their businesses and in a bet that tight sugar supplies and a growing ethanol market would boost earnings.
Analysts have estimated that Bunge spent more than $2 billion buying up assets in Brazil, and now operates eight sugarcane mills with a combined crushing capacity of 20 million tonnes of cane a year, which it processes into sugar and ethanol.
But those Brazil bets have soured in recent years with local cane mills, which produce both sugar and ethanol, hit hard by rising costs of doing business and Brazilian government caps on domestic fuel prices, which hurts returns on ethanol.
So far, most other companies have hung on. In December, Louis Dreyfus' local sugar and ethanol milling spinoff BioSev sold its Usina Sao Carlos in Sao Paulo state for 200 million reais ($90 million) to rival milling group Sao Martinho.
JPMorgan analyst Ann Duignan said she was "encouraged" by Bunge's exploration of options for its sugar business.
Some analysts saw it as a dark omen for Brazil's ethanol sector. They wondered how Bunge would find a buyer amid such uncertainty.
"This is a bad signal for the sector," said Cesar Maria Borges, director of sugar and ethanol analyst JOB Economia.
"The expectation of Bunge when it entered the productive side was that there was money to be made. The problem, even though sugar prices are low, is on the ethanol side, which is 50 percent of the cane business."
Schroder said it has been challenging for Bunge to transfer its strengths in other agribusiness areas such as grains and soybeans to sugar. He noted that the company is growing sugar instead of just trading it, and also dealing with complications because of government fuel price controls in Brazil.
Sugar and biofuels are a small part of Bunge's overall agriculture business, accounting for only 7 percent of net sales in the nine months to Sept 30.
Bunge is among the four large players known as the "ABCD" companies that dominate the flow of agricultural goods around the world. The others are Archer Daniels Midland Co, Cargill Inc and Louis Dreyfus Corp.
Some of those have also moved to shed peripheral parts of their business in order to refocus on their core. ADM is said to be in the final stages of selling its billion-dollar global cocoa business to Cargill, sources have said.
Bunge reported a net loss of $137 million for the third quarter, compared with a profit of $289 million a year earlier. The loss amounted to 94 cents per share, against a profit of $1.92 per share a year earlier.
Revenue slipped to $14.7 billion from $16.5 billion a year earlier, and came in below analysts' average forecast of $16.9 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The sugar and bioenergy division reported a loss of $19 million. Bunge recorded an after-tax charge of $415 million primarily related to that business.
Results for Bunge's traditional agribusiness business of buying, selling and processing crops like soybeans fell during the quarter, as supplies remained tight due to last year's severe U.S drought. Large U.S. harvests are expected to promote strong results in the fourth quarter, even though the U.S. corn and soy harvests are advancing later than normal this autumn.
Soy processing margins in North America are strong due to lean inventories, large harvests and greater demand for livestock feed, said Drew Burke, Bunge's chief financial officer.
"North America and the Black Sea should see strong grain exports as the world restocks inventories after an extended period of tight supplies," Burke said.
Cargill this month reported a 41 percent drop in quarterly profit due to lingering effects of the drought.
CAPITAL EXPENDITURE CUTS
In July, Bunge said it has cut its plan for capital expenditures in 2013 to $1 billion from an earlier projection of $1.2 billion. The company plans a 2014 capital expenditure budget of $900 million, "with a focus on growth and productivity projects with shorter paybacks," Burke said.
Bunge shares slipped 1.4 percent to 79.82, but remain about 10 percent higher on the year. Shares of ADM, which is due to report quarterly results on Oct. 29, are up 43 percent so far this year.