After watching its Venezuelan business get crippled by that country’s economic meltdown, Cargill this year has found some good news in South America: Argentina, where a new regime has opened up the export trade.
The November election of Mauricio Macri as Argentina’s president was transformational, with a center-right party sweeping out a long-serving left-leaning government.
“The political environment has changed overnight,” Cargill CEO Dave MacLennan said in a speech this week at the University of Minnesota, which was sponsored by the U’s Carlson School of Management.
Macri’s government set out to reform the Argentine economy, which included eliminating export taxes on wheat, corn and beef, and by somewhat reducing a soybean tariff.
Macri also devalued Argentina’s peso, letting it float freely, thus making the country’s exports more competitive on the global market.
The result has been a boom in sales by farmers who had been holding grain in storage. And that’s a big opportunity for a giant grain trader like Cargill.
In Argentina, “we have had a dramatic turnaround in year-over-year profits,” MacLennan told the Star Tribune in an interview after the U speech.
Minnetonka-based Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, operates in 70 countries, and Argentina has long been a particularly important one.
Indeed, Cargill’s move into international markets started with Argentina back in 1947. Today, Cargill employs 3,330 people in Argentina, in several businesses, including corn milling, barley malting and soybean processing.
Argentina’s reforms have been a hit in the American business community — and on Wall Street. The country, which infamously defaulted on $82 billion of sovereign debt in 2001, returned to international credit markets last month with a $16.5 billion bond offering.
However, the economy in Argentina itself has gotten shakier in wake of Macri’s reforms. Thousands of demonstrators — marshaled by trade unions — took to the streets of Buenos Aires last week to protest.
Macri’s government has fired thousands of state workers to cut back on what it sees as bloated spending. At the same time, with the peso’s devaluation, Argentina’s already chronic inflation has only gotten worse. The government anticipates the inflation rate will subside as its economic plans fully kick in.
In Venezuela, people’s suffering is far more intense, and western companies are taking massive write-downs on operations there. Venezuela’s economy is contracting; its inflation rate is the highest in the world; and it has one of the globe’s highest murder rates.
Cargill historically has had a large operation in Venezuela, where among other things it makes cooking oil, flour and pasta. Last year, the company took two charges related to the country’s economic chaos. Cargill’s business — like many others in Venezuela — is just hanging on.
“We have several hundred workers who show up to work each day … in an extremely violent Caracas,” MacLennan said during his speech.