Shareholders back Noble Agri deal, but concerns remain

Mr Elman, Noble founder and chairman, at his office in Hong Kong last week. He said that the sale of Noble Agri to Cofco International will remove a persistent drag on earnings.
Mr Elman, Noble founder and chairman, at his office in Hong Kong last week. He said that the sale of Noble Agri to Cofco International will remove a persistent drag on earnings.PHOTO: REUTERS

They point to battered oil and coal markets, effect on share price from credit downgrades

Noble Group received a majority shareholder backing to sell its shares in its agricultural unit but investors continued to hound the management with concerns of company outlook and market confidence.

Concerns were raised about the firm's exposure to the battered oil and coal markets while others pointed to the damage being done to the company and its share price by credit downgrades. At least there was agreement among the 284 shareholders at the meeting over the sale of Noble Agri to Chinese firm Cofco International. The motion to divest all of Noble Agri shares was carried with 90 per cent of the vote.

The deal, announced in December, will give Noble US$750 million (S$1 billion) in cash proceeds, helping to cut its net debt from US$4.18 billion to US$3.43 billion, based on data as of Sept 30 last year.

Noble Agri's losses were a major impact on Noble's performance last year so the sale will remove a persistent drag on earnings, said company founder and chairman Richard Elman.

Chief executive Yusuf Alireza told the meeting: "The banks and the investors are concerned about the (commodity) sector, and the most important thing is to ensure we have a strong and liquid balance sheet." He added that the group can now refocus on its more profitable core businesses.

But some shareholders, such as retiree Richard Lau, 66, remained worried about Noble's future.

"You are in the oil business, and the coal business, they are all in a down cycle," he said at the meeting. "Can you justify what you said, that you're going to make money after this deal? Are we going to get better results? Are we going to get better dividends? Because we're all suffering here."

Mr Alireza replied that while the commodity market conditions are challenging, "the world doesn't end, people don't stop consuming commodities and not all companies go bankrupt".

Issues around credit ratings and market confidence were also raised. An unnamed shareholder asked: "Why do the issues with credit ratings keep appearing in the news and affect the share price badly? How do you plan to deal with this problem?"

Noble lost its investment grade ratings with both Moody's and Standard & Poor's after the Noble Agri transaction was announced.

Calling the agencies' decisions "disappointing", Mr Alireza said Noble has exceeded the metric requirements to keep the investment grade ratings. The downgrade was industry-wide and hundreds of commodity companies were affected.

Several shareholders also blasted the company for its inability to manage the media and public perceptions, a reference to the series of attacks that have been levelled at Noble by Iceberg Research.

Iceberg's allegations of accounting and valuation issues sparked Noble's share price collapse in February last year. This week, Iceberg said a fourth report is in the works. This persistent negative buzz around the company is creating a crisis of confidence, shareholders noted.

Mr Elman and Mr Alireza both said plenty had been done to rebut parties motivated by "market manipulation", pointing to the Investor Day conference and the PwC review in the second half of last year.

The legal proceedings against Mr Arnaud Vagner - allegedly the man behind Iceberg - are ongoing, with the next hearing slated for March 6, Mr Elman added.

Some shareholders are blaming the media for the company's woes.

Retiree C.K. Tan, 62, told The Straits Times: "The company has stepped up its auditing and transparency, but Iceberg keeps coming back trying to twist facts. They are trying to confuse the market, and it doesn't help that the media always pay attention to them."

One quick way to turn around the poor sentiment is to seek a "white knight", investor John Tan, 60, said.

"Noble should try to restore market confidence by bringing in more investors, especially the big boys such as Cofco International... or even Temasek Holdings," he added.

Noble shares closed down 0.5 cent or 1.82 per cent to 27 cents after the meeting. The company will announce full-year results on Feb 24.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Shareholders back Noble Agri deal, but concerns remain'. Print Edition | Subscribe