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Glencore flags appetite for ag deals - even amid debt reduction drive

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Glencore underlined ambitions to drive farm sector consolidation, even as the commodities giant unveiled a profits drop in agriculture, hurt by factors from China canola import hiccups to a "difficult" European market for oilseeds crushing.

Ivan Glasenberg, the Glencore chief executive, said that "we believe consolidation of this [agriculture] industry can take place", adding that the Swiss-based group would like to play a role in mergers, although he saw no deal opportunities right now.

"We always look at everything," he told investors.

"We keep seeing what comes on the market for sale, and we'll keep monitoring what's out there.

"But we don't see anything right now that we are seriously looking at."

'Look at fairly substantial-sized assets'

The comments come even as Glencore is finalising the $3.1bn sale of a 49.9% stake in its agriculture division to Canadian funds Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and British Columbia Investment Management, amid a group drive cut down on debt levels which provoked investor concerns.

"We always said the whole idea of selling 50% of the ag side, naturally, on the debt reduction plan was important also to get the $3.1bn cash in to the company," Mr Glasenberg said

However, the sale also represented "a good chance to bring in a partner - a strong, solid partner, who would have the financial muscle that allowed us to grow the [agriculture] business".

Glencore believed that, given its existing borrowing levels, "on our own would be difficult to really grow significantly".

But with an, effectively, 50:50 partnership in agriculture with the Canadian funds, "we got leverage we can put in the company as well.

"Together with a partner contributing their part of the equity and us contributing our part of the equity, we can look at fairly substantial-sized assets, and look to consolidate industry further."

'Arbitrage opportunities limited'

The comments came as the group unveiled, in agriculture, a halving in profits for the first half of 2016, in what may be the division's swansong as a fully consolidated Glencore business, ahead of completion of the deal.

Operating profits in ag marketing tumbled 39%, on revenues down 9.4% at $9.73bn, weighed by factors including strong ag supplies which made for low prices and, "in the case of grain, a lack of volatility".

"Procurement margins were consistently narrow and arbitrage opportunities limited," the group said.

Conversely, in Canada, where Glencore has a large presence following its takeover of Viterra four years ago, weaker crop supplies meant the "results were substantially" lower year on year.

"The smaller stock carryover, average crop size and low prices meant that farmers were often reluctant sellers," while strong competition, and a weaker Canadian currency, weighed on procurement margins in US dollar terms.

China-Canada canola spat

Other setbacks included dents to the group's Australian grain export performance from a smaller harvest in its South Australia stronghold, and from the hurdle to competitiveness from a stronger Australian dollar.

And the group highlighted too "China's objections to levels of canola imports", an issue in particular for Canada, the top exporter of the oilseed.

Indeed, moves by China next month to tighten restrictions on canola imports – ostensibly for reasons of controlling disease, but which many traders believe is an attempt to encourage use of higher priced domestic supplies – are overshadowing a trip to the country next week by Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Chinese imports of rapeseed, including canola, soared 69% year on year last month to 341,113 tonnes, taking total buy-ins so far in 2016 to 2.34m tonnes, a drop of 8.3%, Chinese customs data earlier on Wednesday showed.

All but 18,300 tonnes of China's rapeseed imports so far this year have been sourced from Canada.

'Very difficult environment'

In industrial activities in agriculture, Glencore fell to an operating loss of $7m for the half year, from a profit of $31m a year before, despite a jump of 41% to $1.56bn in revenues, with the margin drop blamed largely on European oilseed crushing activities.

"The smaller EU rapeseed crop, lower prices, reluctant farmer selling and continued energy market weakness combined to create a very difficult EU oilseed processing and biodiesel environment, with gross margins barely covering variable costs," the group said.

However, thanks to closures by rival groups of some capacity, "we expect an improvement in the second half of 2016" in the market, Glencore said.

In ag marketing too, Mr Glasenberg forecast a better second half of 2016, saying that the unit "is our one business that does exhibit certain seasonality around the harvest, particularly in Australia and Canada.

"And the old Viterra business, that its big engine is the handling and procurement infrastructure in Canada and Australia, the harvests are very much second-half weighted, and the earnings generation follows accordingly."

By Mike Verdin

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