China plans new food trading giant with Cofco merger and IPO

An employee inside a greenhouse at the high-tech indoor Cofco Wisdom Farm operated by Cofco Corp.
An employee inside a greenhouse at the high-tech indoor Cofco Wisdom Farm operated by Cofco Corp.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's largest food company plans to merge its international trading division with several domestic businesses to create a new agricultural commodity behemoth before embarking on an initial public offering.

Cofco Corp has hired bankers to advise on a plan to combine Cofco International with some of its domestic trading and processing assets, according to people familiar with the talks. After the merger, Cofco plans to sell shares in the new company, most likely in Shanghai, the people said, asking not to be named as the matter is private. The IPO could value the new company at more than US$5 billion (S$6.7 billion), the people said.

The combination will create a new agricultural trading giant, putting Cofco's international trading unit and some of its domestic businesses under one umbrella, with assets spanning Brazil to China, the people said. The new company will compete with the so-called ABCDs, a quartet of global traders which have dominated the industry for decades: Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus.

China, the world's largest buyer of commodities, has helped drive food prices higher over the past 12 months with record purchases of corn and other crops. The new trading colossus will help secure key food supply chains and provide Beijing with another geopolitical tool in global commerce.

A spokesman for Cofco International in Geneva declined to comment. There was no immediate reply to an email sent to Cofco Corp.'s headquarters in Beijing.

The merger plan comes after Geneva-based Cofco International, also known as CIL, posted record profit on the back of volatile agricultural markets. The overseas trading venture had struggled for several years to make money, but in 2020 pretax profit surged to about US$350 million, one of the people said. The results are unaudited and could still change.

Minority investors

The IPO will allow minority shareholders in CIL, including Chinese private equity investor Hopu, state-controlled China Investment Corp, Singapore state investment agency Temasek Holdings and a branch of the World Bank, to monetize their investment. Outside investors currently own about 49 per cent of CIL, with Cofco controlling the rest.

The merger is expected to be completed this year with the potential IPO possibly planned for the end of 2021 or early 2022, the people said. Still, the merger structure hasn't been finalised and the IPO plan depends on investor appetite and commodities prices, they said.

With the merger, Cofco will combine the market savvy of its international trading venture, which is one of the largest soybean exporters from South America, with its domestic assets that trade and process agricultural commodities in China. In effect, it will link farmers around the world directly with the biggest consumers in China.

Cofco made a major splash back in 2014, paying more than US$4 billion to buy the agricultural trading assets of Noble Group Ltd. and Dutch grain trader Nidera BV. However, the acquisitions soon caused major headaches for the Chinese company, saddling it with debt and financial losses related to the deals.