Profiting From Mankind's Need to Feed

Profiting From Mankind's Need to Feed

A key investment question these days involves whether DuPont's valuation will improve in the months ahead. After all, the company is in the throes of a major conversion from its decades-old concentration on chemicals to a decided emphasis on less-cyclical agriculture.

Obviously, is the current model for the structure and product base toward which DuPont is moving. Not so very long ago, Monsanto was a purveyor of various sorts of chemicals. But today, virtually all its revenues are generated from the sale of agricultural items, including bioengineered seeds, pesticides, and herbicides.

DuPont is currently undergoing a similar, albeit more deliberate, transformation. In the meantime, largely because of Monsanto's total immersion in agriculture, its price-earnings multiple at 24 times is precisely twice DuPont's. Having said that, however, the St. Louis company's substantial valuation advantage may also be tied to its more robust balance sheet.

A gift to its shareholders
DuPont is working feverishly to remake itself. In 2011 it bought a major European enzyme-and-specialty-food company. And last February it unloaded its performance-coatings unit, largely the maker of automotive paint. In August it completed an arduous three-year process that resulted in the acquisition of an 80% stake in a South African seed company.

Its major effort now involves engineering the spinoff of its big but underperforming performance-chemicals segment, a task that could require up to 18 months. The unit had been thought to be a sale candidate, possibly fetching as much as $12 billion to $15 billion. But with other makers of titanium dioxide -- its primary product -- on the market, any offers that might have been received would have fallen far short of that range. Unfortunately, however, the spinoff will be far less effective than an outright sale in shrinking DuPont's $14.9 billion in total debt.

Major initiatives in agriculture
In the meantime, CFO Ellen Kullman and her team are also working feverishly to expand their agriculture-related operations. The company's Pioneer seed unit recently announced an agreement with farm equipment manufacturerDeere & Company The combination will provide farmers with valuable "precision agriculture" information and analyses aimed at increasing crop production. Customers of the companies will be able to employ new agronomy software in concert with Deere's own wireless transfer system to gain data-driven recommendations on planting, field management, and harvesting.

Clearly the world of Old McDonald and his peers is changing rapidly. In the process, it's beginning to revolve around data availability related to such variables as appropriate seed types, optimum planting and harvest times, weather, moisture availability, and the appropriate applications of fungicides and pesticides. The new approach is tied to all sorts of technology, including the use of global-positioning systems. On that basis, DuPont has "mapped" about 20 million acres in the past two years.

At the same time, while biotechnology and genetic engineering are less-than-popular terms in many quarters, both DuPont and Monsanto have altered the genes of the soybean to render it healthier and, more importantly, largely free of trans fats. As The New York Times pointed out not long ago, this change constitutes one of the first instances wherein genetic engineering is being used for the benefit of consumers rather than to improve the lots of farmers.

A decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced that, beginning in 2006, labeling would be required on food products containing artificial trans fats. As a result, edible soybean usage dropped from 15.5 billion pounds in 2005 to 12.3 billion pounds last year. Now, however, the new beans contain far more oleic acid -- a monounsaturated acid that exists in abundance in olive oil -- and minimal amounts of less desirable polyunsaturated linoleic and linolenic acids.

Foolish takeaway
Once its performance chemicals spinoff has been accomplished, I'd hardly be shocked if DuPont were to jettison at least some of its other segments not related to agriculture. After all, the continued inclusion of largely industrial units in the company's mix will almost certainly continue to dampen its market valuation vis-a-vis Monsanto's.

In the meantime, I'm sticking with an earlier contention that by 2015 or 2016 agriculture- and food-related units could account for as much as 75% of DuPont's revenues. That, for a company whose slogan until recently was "Better Living Through Chemistry."

Given both the major changes occurring in the company and the longtime investment saw about buying low and selling high, I'm suggesting Fools monitor the restructuring at DuPont very, very closely.

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