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Auditor caution overshadows buzzing Elders auction

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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 for sale.

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 prospects.

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."

Another loss

The caution came as Elders unveiled a fourth successive annual loss, of Aus$60.6m, taking total losses over the four years above Aus$1.1bn.

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.

Bidding interest

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' biggest investor.

Elders in October revealed the sale of its rural services business following an approach over a deal from RuralCo.


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