By Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's top exporter of processed soy, Vicentin, is in talks over a potential takeover deal with firms including European grains giant Glencore to help resolve a debt crisis, according to two sources close to the negotiations.
The near 90-year-old firm, which defaulted on payments to suppliers late last year, has also told grains farmers it owes money to that it will make a debt restructuring offer in the days ahead, the sources said on Friday.
The discussions over a deal come after Vicentin was forced to sell part of its stake in a joint venture with Glencore <GLEN.L> in December, when spending on expansion caught up with the firm amid a widening economic crisis in Argentina.
Glencore upped its stake in that venture, Renova, whose operations include a major crushing plant on the banks of the Parana River. Vicentin is now in talks to sell the rest of its stake in Renova, one of the sources told Reuters.
"Vicentin has decided to sell, but not to declare bankruptcy," said the source, who asked not to be identified due the sensitivity of the matter. "Vicentin has been talking with Glencore, principally, about a sale."
Vicentin and Glencore declined to comment.
Vicentin recorded sales of $3.2 billion (2.4 billion pounds) worth of soy products in fiscal year 2019, according to a company presentation, excluding revenue from Renova. Argentina is the global top exporter of soy meal and soy oil.
Renova, with over 20,000 tonnes of daily crushing capacity, is one of the world's top soy processing facilities.
The company has already met with farmers and suppliers to inform them that the firm will be ready to make a debt restructuring proposal in the coming days, the two sources said.
The soy crusher went on a credit-fuelled expansion last year before political uncertainties sparked a market crash and led international banks to pull back from the South American grains powerhouse, further pressuring the company.
Vicentin has more than $300 million in commercial debt and more than $1 billion in loans from local and international banks. Once restructuring talks conclude with farmers, it is expected to start talks with the banks.
The negotiations for the sale of the firm's assets are fluid, with no resolution expected anytime soon, according to one of the two sources, speaking with direct knowledge of the situation.
"They are sitting down with farmers and all the other individuals they owe money to, to keep them informed about the restructuring proposal," said the source.
"They are talking with companies including Glencore about a sale either of all Vicentin's remaining assets or the 30-plus percent of Renova that Glencore still does not own. If anyone buys the rest of Renova, it will be Glencore," the source said.
The two sources did not give details on the potential stakes that could be sold and valuation of any deal.
Argentine crusher Molinos Agro <MOLA.BA> was also mentioned as a potential suitor. The firm declined to comment.
Vicentin's financial meltdown underscores the challenge facing the new Peronist government of President Alberto Fernandez as he looks to revive growth, calm rampant inflation and revamp about $100 billion in sovereign debt.
Argentine relies heavily on its agricultural sector - especially processed soy - for export dollars, sorely needed to service its foreign debts with creditors including the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Fernandez, inaugurated in December after thumping business-friendly predecessor Mauricio Macri in October elections, has raised grains export taxes and may take additional measures to raise government revenue from farmers.
Vicentin's issues spiked after farmers had looked to sell crops earlier to processors, hoping to avoid paying increased export taxes that had been anticipated under the new government.
"That was the bullet that killed Vicentin. All the farmers came to the company at once, asking for their money immediately," one of the sources said Friday.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Tom Brown)