There is no pleasing some people. Monsanto blew the lights out with its first-quarter numbers, with profit coming in 40 per cent ahead of expectations and an increase in guidance for the full year. In return, shares in the genetically modified crop specialist rose a measly 3 per cent. That is partly because the first quarter, which comes before the U.S. growing season, accounts for less than a fifth of earnings.
Still, all seems to be going nicely. Demand for corn seeds is strong in the U.S. as farmers fret about a repeat of last year's drought, and the company is rolling out new products in Brazil and Argentina. Pricing for herbicides has also been strong. The long-term bull case, which revolves around the world's need to feed more people from limited farmland and in wild weather, still holds true.
But there are clouds on the rural horizon. First up is Brazil, where the company is embroiled in a legal spat with customers about the patents on its soybean seeds. That could wipe 5 per cent off full-year earnings. Then there are wider questions about how Monsanto spends its $2.5-billion (U.S.) of net cash.
Research and development does not seem to be a priority. Despite an upbeat research presentation alongside the results, R&D spending was flat on a year ago. The company spent 12 per cent of revenue on R&D against 16 per cent in 2010. M&A activity also ground to a halt. More share buybacks loom, but they have the unfortunate side effect of making Monsanto's earnings per share look as genetically modified as its seeds.
At the right price it would be worth looking past these worries. But the shares have risen by a quarter in the past year and, with an enterprise value that is 12 times its forecast earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, the company trades at a premium to rivals DuPont and Syngenta. The best parts of the harvest have gone.