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Monsanto's financial revamp looks better than Syngenta deal

Monsanto, a company best noted for genetically modified seed, has now made quite a flourish about engineering its balance sheet.

The world's biggest seed group has been pressed by shareholders to stop keeping a net cash position, and run with borrowings, like most of its peers.

Now is has answered their prayers. By introducing a net debt target of 1.5 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda), the group has put shareholders in line for quite a windfall.

That looks a far better bet that the takeover of Swiss-based rival Syngenta that Monsanto bosses had also been considering.

Cash to spend

Investors will get a stack of cash without risk of putting Monsanto's financial stability on the line.

To get a measure of the amounts at stake, consider that Monsanto ran in its last financial year with a net cash position equivalent to 0.4 times ebitda.

Adjusting to its new target means the release of some $10bn, assuming the ebitda of $5.3bn next year that analysts have factored in.

And that's before counting in the net cash flows of some $3bn a year that the company is throwing off.

It certainly has plenty of firepower to support the $10bn in share buybacks it has promised.

Earnings multiplier

And the buybacks have offered Monsanto some extra leverage, in publicity terms, too.

The group also on Wednesday revealed a target to double, at least, by 2019 its earnings - on a per share basis. While that feat looks daunting, but not nearly so tricky when Monsanto is buying back its stock by the hatful.

At today's stock price, the best in six years, the company would be able to afford more than 87m of its shares with its buyback fund, topped up with $1.1bn which remains unspent from its last programme.

Repurchasing that amount of stock would be enough to raise earnings per share by 20%, before factoring in any growth in profitability.

Better than Syngenta

And all this while making the company more tax efficient.

A major benefit of debt is that, much to the chagrin of many policymakers, interest payments can be put against tax, unlike dividends.

That looks a much better way of improving Monsanto's tax position than moving to Switzerland, an idea the group was reported on Tuesday to have looked at, through a takeover of Syngenta, one of its closest rivals.

While Monsanto still says it is in the market for acquisitions, for now it deserves applause for choosing to send a stack of cash back to shareholders rather than splash out on Syngenta.

This is after all a deal which, however big the tax perks, would likely have seen many benefits from costs savings disappear through a tortured anti-trust process.

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