(Recasts, adds CEO quote, updates shares)
SYDNEY, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Australia’s largest milk processor Murray Goulburn swung to a first-half net loss on Friday as a worldwide glut of milk formula hammered exports to China, sending its shares sharply lower.
The dairy company posted a net loss of A$31.9 million ($24.6 million) for the six months to end-December, from a net profit of A$10 million in the previous first half. Excluding one-off costs related to an assistance package for farmers, net profit slid 6 percent to A$9 million.
Shares of Murray Goulburn fell as much as 10 percent to A$0.88 in early trading, their lowest intraday level in two months and less than half their A$2.10 issue price in an initial public offering in 2015. The broader market was down 0.3 percent.
The result adds to uncertainty about Murray Goulburn’s decision to export formula to China, a once-promising strategy for Australian dairy firms that was thrown into doubt by a 2016 Beijing directive to have all formula importers registered by 2018.
The company, meanwhile, has been subsidising farmers for lower than forecast milk prices, another fallout from the supply glut. The “milk supply support package” contributed to a 72.3 percent jump in debt to A$677 million, it said on Friday.
“The first half of this financial year has been a particularly challenging time,” said Chief Executive Officer Ari Mervis, who started in the role on Feb. 13.
“Record rainfalls and high levels of competitor activity have reduced our milk intake, impacting revenue and our ability to fully recover fixed costs and overheads,” he said in a statement.
Murray Goulburn said the regulatory regime surrounding formula imports to China was “fluid”, and it would freeze spending on exports to the country until the situation became clearer.
Revenue at its “dairy foods” unit, which is responsible for cross border sales, tumbled 19.7 percent to A$558 million. The company said the decline was particularly led by sales of adult milk powder.
Total sales fell 14.8 percent to A$1.2 billion
$1 = 1.2965 Australian dollars Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Richard Pullin