NEWS ANALYSIS

Departure signals Noble's flagging ambition

Mr Yusuf Alireza's departure from Noble Group is a clear signal of the commodity trader's reduced ambitions.

The chief executive (CEO) is stepping down after helping to avert an immediate liquidity crisis. But Noble still faces many questions about its long-term viability.

For Noble's vocal band of critics, Mr Alireza's exit is overdue.

In the past year, Mr Alireza, a former Goldman Sachs executive, has been the target of sustained criticism over the company's accounting practices, its approach to valuing long-term commodity assets as well as its ability to service hefty borrowings.

Though Noble has defied predictions of an imminent collapse, it has been forced to sell assets - including its agricultural unit - to preserve cash.

Earlier this month, it secured a US$3 billion (S$4 billion) credit line, easing short-term funding pressures. Nevertheless, Fitch joined other credit agencies in lowering Noble's rating to junk. The group's shares have lost around three quarters of their value since Mr Alireza's appointment in 2012.

His departure hardly marks a dramatic change of direction for the US$1.4 billion group, though.

New bosses William Randall and Jeff Frase, who will share the CEO title, are both established Noble executives. Meanwhile, the company is still shedding assets.

Its electricity and gas distribution unit in the US, which brought in 18 per cent of Noble's operating income last year, is the latest business on the block.

Though a sale would help to pay off some of its US$2.3 billion of net debt, any sustained recovery depends on Noble consistently generating positive operating cash flow. Its operations bled US$486 million in the first quarter, mostly because counterparties worried about its financial stability.

As Noble returns to its roots as an asset-light trading house, its status as a publicly traded company looks increasingly superfluous.

Despite consistent chatter about an equity injection, big new investors remain on the sidelines.

Noble's board says, cryptically, that it looks forward to working with Mr Alireza in future, "should the opportunity arise".

Even if the former CEO does return in some manner, he won't be able to do much to change Noble's diminished status.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Departure signals Noble's flagging ambition'. Print Edition | Subscribe