Squeezed Ethanol Makers Looking Elsewhere for Profitability: Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), Valero Energy Corporation (VLO)

Page 1 of 2

If you were watching ethanol company stocks over the last five years, you’re probably suffering from a serious case of whiplash. They boomed with the fuel’s fortunes in 2008, crashed like everything else in 2009, recovered impressively in 2010, and then fell in both 2011 and 2012. So far this year most are up between 20% and 40%, but few investors believe these gains will prove sustainable.

VALERO ENERGY CORP NEW (NYSE:VLO)

Producers in this $40 billion industry don’t, either. So most of the biggest have begun downsizing their reliance on ethanol as fuel — and turning to other related products that, they hope, will offer better margins and longer-term viability.

Margin squeeze at record levels

The economics of ethanol production have always been dicey. This is largely because the industry is at the mercy of many factors outside its control. Volatile corn and energy prices pressure margins. Fickle acceptance of ethanol levels in gasoline by consumers and oil refiners keep demand from significantly expanding. Waning government support threatens to undermine the demand that does exist.

In years past, ethanol makers took the offensive by opening new plants and boosting production. This countered at least some of the margin issue, as a growing capacity was needed to meet the slowly increasing amounts of ethanol the government required annually in the nation’s auto fuel supply. Last year, plants in 28 states produced more than 13 billion gallons.

The biggest players feasted on this growth. Archer Daniels Midland Company (NYSE:ADM), a large, diversified agricultural company, focused on ethanol and quickly became the largest producer in the industry with an annual capacity of 1.72 billion gallons. The privately held POET parlayed some innovative ideas into production levels only slightly lower. Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) bought 10 state-of-the-art ethanol plants and instantly became the country’s third-largest producer. Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc. (NASDAQ:GPRE), a vertically-integrated producer based in Nebraska, built itself into the largest of the public ethanol pure-plays. Pacific Ethanol Inc (NASDAQ:PEIX) grew by opening plants near customers on the West Coast rather than corn suppliers in the Midwest — although this differentiation has subsequently resulted in more problems than benefits.

To anyone paying attention, though, it’s obvious that the game has changed for everyone. Analysts expected U.S. ethanol demand to rise to 15 billion gallons in the next few years, but resistance from consumers, automakers and oil companies to putting more than 10% ethanol blends into passenger cars puts that target in serious jeopardy. Producers dramatically reversed course and cut production last year as the Midwest drought took a big toll on corn supply, at one point idling 36 of the 211 ethanol plants in the U.S. and eliminating 15% of the nation’s installed capacity.

But even this wasn’t enough to slow margin erosion, which has reached crisis levels with ethanol producers now losing money on every gallon sold since January 2011 and their losses hitting new records almost every month.

Top players forging new strategies

But the leaders are not standing still. Top producer ADM, for example, has aggressively reduced capacity in recent months and one of the plants that it idled, in Wallhalla, N.D., may be closed for good. In its recent earnings report, ADM officials said they believe ethanol margins have hit bottom and will recover as 2013 wears on — but they also said the company will be increasing its oilseed processing operations to make up for the profits lost in ethanol.

Number-three Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE:VLO) cut production as well, and can rely even more than ADM on diversification through its petroleum operations.

POET and Green Plains also idled multiple plants last year. But with their narrow focus putting them more at risk than ADM and Valero, these two are trying to pull themselves out of the ethanol slump by remaking some of their plants into refineries that can produce something other than the fuel.

Page 1 of 2
blog comments powered by Disqus
Insider Monkey Headlines
Insider Monkey Small Cap Strategy
Insider Monkey Small Cap Strategy

Insider Monkey beat the market by 52 percentage points in 24 months Click to see monthly returns in table format!

Lists

Top 10 Least Expensive Hybrid Cars to Save the Planet With

The 10 Biggest ‘Gate’ Controversies in History

The 10 States with the Highest Nursing Shortages Leaving Their Hospitals Depleted

The 10 Best Value Investment Blogs that Every Investor Must Read

The 6 Cheapest Boarding Schools in Europe 2015

The 5 Most Expensive Cars To Insure in the World

The 10 Most Common Genetically Modified Foods

10 Self-Made Billionaires Who Came From Nothing

The 10 Most Expensive Cities to Live in North America

The 13 Most Expensive Headphones in the World to Represent

The Top 20 Wealthiest Soccer Teams in 2014

4 BuzzWorthy Cannabis Stocks And Some Smoking Derivative Plays

The 10 Healthiest Fast Food Chains in America to Dine At

The 5 Most Expensive Cat Food Brands You Can Spoil Your Kitty With

The 6 Best eCommerce Platforms for Small Businesses

The 10 Worst Mistakes an Entrepreneur Can Make

The 5 Most OP Characters in League of Legends to Carry Games and Crush Foes With

The 5 Best Foods to Eat Before Running that Will Help You Pound the Pavement

10 Glaring Plot Holes in The Walking Dead that a Zombie-Filled Bus Could Drive Through

The 5 Biggest Celebrity Stoners Who Love Their Reefer

The 10 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time by Out-of-Touch Critics

Top 6 Least Expensive Cruise Destinations For 2015 that Will Take You to Paradise

10 States with Lowest Substance Abuse Rates in America

The 14 Most Watched TV Finales Ever

The 10 Best Selling Role Playing Games of All Time for PC

10 Most Influential Papers In Economics

Top 8 Biggest Charities in the US

10 Worst Celebrity Career Moves Ever

Top 10 Best Paid Tennis Stars in the World

10 Cities with High Demand for Nurses

6 of the Worst Greeting Card Messages Ever Crafted

How to Make Money in ArcheAge and Build Your Empire

10 Foods To Eat To Lower Cholesterol Levels

The 10 Most Hated Television Characters of All Time

The 30 Worst Halloween Costume Ideas Ever Brought to Horrible Life

10 Vocational Skills in Demand Today with Jobs Waiting to be Filled

10 Best Places to Visit in Central and South America

The 10 Greatest Empires in History Which Nearly Conquered the World

The 6 Cheapest Boarding Schools In America 2015

5 Clear Reasons LoL is Better than DotA, Continues to Rule MOBAs

The Only 9 Teams with a Chance to Win the Super Bowl

The 15 Most Common Phobias in America that Induce Fits of Panic

Top 6 Least Expensive Tourist Destinations in 2014

Jim Goetz, Peter Fenton, Jim Breyer: Top 6 Venture Investors for 2014

Top 15 Billionaires in 2014

5 Pitfalls To Avoid When Buying a Franchise

Top 20 Medical Schools in the US – 2014 Rankings

4 Business Strategies that Turned Jamie Oliver into the World’s Richest Chef

6 Qualities That Make You A Good Team Player

10 High Paying Seasonal Jobs in America this Holiday Season

Subscribe

Enter your email:

Delivered by FeedBurner

X

Thanks! An email with instructions is sent to !

Your email already exists in our database. Click here to go to your subscriptions

Insider Monkey returned 47.6% in its first year! Wondering How?

Download a complete edition of our newsletter for free!