A caution from auditors over Elders' strained finances sent
shares in the group lower despite the group revealing interest from some
30 potential suitors for the iconic rural services business it is putting up
Enrst & Young staff said in the Australian group's
annual report that "challenges" to trading environments, both domestically and
internationally, were creating "material uncertainties" over Elders' trading
There were also "material uncertainties" over whether
Elders, which has put both its core rural services business and its Futuris car
parts arm up for sale would sell these businesses for sufficient cash, and
within timeframes, to meet a June 2013 deadline when a series of debts mature.
"Resolution of these material uncertainties is fundamental
to the ability of the group to pay debts as and when they become due and
payable and to continue as a going concern," Ernst & Young said.
"Should [Elders] not achieve anticipated asset realisation
outcomes, related deleveraging and appropriate operating performance… there is
material uncertainty whether the group will continue as a going concern."
The caution came as Elders unveiled a fourth successive
annual loss, of Aus$60.6m, taking total losses over the four years above
The latest loss reflected a pre-tax hit of Aus$75.3m
relating to the sale of forestry assets as part of the shake-up Elders has been
undertaking to improve its fortunes, a revamp which has also taken it out of
sectors including banking.
Elders reported underlying operating profits up 20% at
Aus$38.8m, although this did include a boost of Aus$5.6m to the rural services
division from marking assets to improved market prices.
This windfall "more than offset lower network earnings due
to unseasonably dry conditions late in the year across much of western and
southern Australia", hurting demand for farm supplies, hitting sheep and wool
markets and prompting a "subdued" farm real estate market.
The group also flagged a strong performance at its
international trading operations, boosted by a 25% jump in cattle export
volumes, after the resolution of last year's ban on exports to Indonesia, and "Improved
operating margins" at its two Australian feedlots.
Elders chief executive Malcolm Jackman said that the group
was "pleased" so far with the sales process for the rural services business,
saying that "about 30 parties that have rung in" to express an interest.
The potential suitors were split evenly between
international and Australian groups, with "probably a weighting of 60:40" in
favour of trade groups over what he termed financial sponsors, a category
including investors funds and private equity.
The sale of Futuris was "now well advanced", he added.
Shares in the group fell 3.3% to Aus$0.145, remaining near their
lowest in at least 20 years reached last month, and below indeed the levels
that rival RuralCo Holdings invested earlier this year, to become Elders'
Elders in October revealed the sale of its rural services business
following an approach over a deal from RuralCo.