US agribusiness giant Bunge has reported fourth-quarter net profit of $97m, compared to $48m in the year-ago period, beating both its own forecasts and analysts’ estimates.

Bunge, which back in December raised its fourth-quarter earnings estimate to between $80m and $90m, benefited from record harvests and weaker currencies in South America during the quarter. The company’s original forecast was for earnings of between $55m and $60m.

For the first quarter, Bunge said it still expects earnings of 25 to 30 cents per share, compared to 98 cents per share in the fourth quarter, and full-year 2003 earnings of $2.62 to $2.72 per share.

The company, which is the world’s largest oilseed processor, said soybean crushing operations in North America were being hurt by weak demand.

Bunge said it would idle production at is soybean processing facility in Cairo, Illinois within the next four to eight weeks, due to declining demand for domestic soybean meal in the short-term and a smaller than anticipated US soybean crop

John Klein, president and chief executive officer of Bunge North America, stated: “While we continue to believe that long-term prospects for soybean processing in the US are attractive, this is the first time since 1989 that domestic consumption of soybean meal is running below the previous year. Factors adversely affecting demand for soybean meal include lower demand from the pork and poultry sectors, which have experienced production cutbacks, and record crops in South America. Near-term margins are being impacted by this year’s US weather-reduced soybean crop. Reluctantly, we have concluded that it is prudent to decrease production at our Cairo facility.”