Bayer CEO opens door to settling Roundup cancer cases
Bayer’s chief executive said he’d consider a “financially reasonable” settlement of litigation over the weedkiller Roundup as the caseload swells and the company’s shares slump anew.
The number of lawsuits from people in the United States who say the herbicide caused them to develop cancer rose by about 5,000 to reach 18,400, Bayer said in a statement. The company also revealed more troubles at its crop-science division Tuesday after bad weather curbed demand from farmers.
Quarterly sales and earnings missed estimates and the German company questioned its ability to meet its full-year forecast. Bayer’s U.S.-traded shares slid 4%.
CEO Werner Baumann has staked his credibility on last year’s $63-billion takeover of Monsanto Co., claiming his company is better off balancing its portfolio between agriculture and healthcare. But the surge in U.S. lawsuits alleging that Roundup — which Bayer inherited from Monsanto — causes cancer suggest that settling the claims will become more expensive than previously thought, heaping more pressure on Baumann three months after he received an unprecedented rebuke from shareholders.
“The jump in lawsuits is worrying,” said Mustaq Rahaman, a credit analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “This set of results will do little to stem calls for more dramatic action including a split.”
Baumann said on a conference call that he is open to a settlement as long as it resolves all Roundup litigation. He repeated that the herbicide is safe, that the cases have no merit and that the company is “constructively engaging” with court-appointed mediator Ken Feinberg.
After the call, Bayer declined to say how much a “financially reasonable” sum would be or whether he was referring only to the current load of cancer cases or the possibility of future Roundup suits tied to other ailments.
Bayer’s definition of what a reasonable settlement amount would be for all the Roundup cases isn’t likely to match up with estimates from lawyers for users of the weed killer, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s law school who teaches about mass-tort litigation. “They aren’t going to like the numbers the plaintiffs are going to demand,” Tobias said. “Maybe Ken Feinberg can work something out.”
Bayer’s legal woes at the agricultural unit are being compounded by bad weather. In North America, heavy flooding has delayed planting season for farmers, while trade tensions with China hurt U.S. farmers’ ability to export soybeans, curbing demand for Bayer’s products. Just as Bayer reported earnings, President Trump lashed out at China for what he said is an unwillingness to buy American agricultural products.
Bayer’s pesticide sales struggled in Europe too, because of unusually dry weather. Revenue at the crop-science unit fell 3.1% after adjusting for currency and portfolio effects associated with the Monsanto takeover, Bayer said.
The company reiterated its annual financial forecast and its plan to defend itself in the Roundup litigation, while saying it will “constructively engage” in the mediation process ordered by a California judge. The company has aimed for about $51 billion in revenue and profit of about $7.60 a share for this year.
Bayer’s other challenges include selling off its animal health division, rekindling growth at its ailing consumer-health division and coming up with promising new medicines for its pharma unit, where top-selling treatments Xarelto and Eylea both face losing patent protection next decade.
Bayer’s shares have plunged about 40% in the last 12 months amid concern over legal claims that Roundup and its main ingredient, glyphosate, can cause cancer. Activist shareholder Elliott Management Corp., which unveiled a $1.3-billion stake last month, has said the company could unlock some $33 billion in shareholder value with a settlement.
Still, some analysts say the company is right to spread its focus between different businesses to help manage the ebbs and flows of each unit.
“If Bayer just had the pharma business, the stock would be super risky, because the pharma business has some medium- to long-term concerns,” said Dennis Berzhanin of Pareto Securities. “Yes, they’re having short-term problems right now with crop science, but it reduces the risk of the company in general and supports their growth going forward.”
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