Noble faces hard slog over $4.1b debt pile

The Hong Kong-based Noble Group said that the Vitol Group deal, coupled with the earlier sale of the gas and power business to Mercuria Energy Group, would provide sufficient proceeds to pay down two secured debt facilities.
The Hong Kong-based Noble Group said that the Vitol Group deal, coupled with the earlier sale of the gas and power business to Mercuria Energy Group, would provide sufficient proceeds to pay down two secured debt facilities.PHOTO: REUTERS

Its woes far from over despite sale of oil unit; analysts say firm will need to restructure debt

LONDON • Noble Group's sale of its oil business to Vitol Group probably buys the embattled commodity trader time.

But even if it survives long enough to complete the deal, there is still an almighty struggle ahead: the near-inevitable restructuring of over US$3 billion (S$4.1 billion) in debt.

Analysts at BNP Paribas, Nomura Holdings, JPMorgan Chase & Co and iFast Corp all predicted after the sale was announced on Monday that the Hong Kong-based company would be forced to restructure its debt.

"The next few months will be critical," said Mr Jean-Francois Lambert, a consultant and former head of global commodity trade finance at HSBC Holdings. "The business, while shrinking, is still bleeding and this becomes very worrisome."

The company's bonds extended gains yesterday after the trader said the Vitol deal, coupled with the earlier sale of the gas and power business to Mercuria Energy Group, would provide sufficient proceeds to pay down two secured debt facilities.

But attention is shifting to the ability of the rump company, focused on coal and iron ore trading in Asia, to service Noble's debt load.

Those prospects do not look especially good: As part of a profit warning on Monday, Noble said its hard commodities business would make net losses of US$50 million to US$100 million in the third quarter - the third straight quarter in which the division has been a source of losses.

CRITICAL PERIOD

The company will need to demonstrate in the fourth quarter that the bleeding is over, reassure its key staff and convince everybody that they have a realistic game plan for the future. Not an easy task. ''

MR JEAN-FRANCOIS LAMBERT, a consultant and former head of global commodity trade finance at HSBC Holdings, on the task facing Noble.

"Remaining unsecured debt has interest liabilities of above US$200 million, which is unlikely to be serviced from the remaining hard commodities business," Mr Varun Ahuja of JPMorgan said in a note on Monday.

"We think the restructuring of the remaining business, post-completion of the oil business, is the base case."

He estimates what is left of Noble could make an annual operating profit of no more than US$200 million. He expects creditors to recover 53 cents on the dollar based on cash levels as of June, from estimates of 42 cents to 57 cents in a liquidation scenario analysis in May.

Noble's shares yesterday tumbled 4.2 per cent to 34 cents, bringing this year's losses to 80 per cent.

Exactly how much surplus cash Noble will have from the sale of the oil unit and gas and power business is far from clear.

On Monday, the firm said that for "illustrative purposes", had the deals been done immediately after end-June, it would have received US$1.42 billion in aggregate proceeds and, after repayment of US$836 million of debt, would have been left with US$582 million in net proceeds.

Those numbers include proceeds from both the planned sale of the oil business, and also the completed sale of the gas and power business, a Noble spokesman confirmed by e-mail. The gas and power sale proceeds are based on the consideration paid on closing, plus amounts placed in escrow and cash received by the business prior to the closing date, the firm said.

Noble received US$102 million in cash and a further US$83 million paid into an escrow account when it sold its gas and power business to Mercuria at the end of last month.

What is more, the value of the net working capital in the oil business - the basis for calculating how much Vitol will pay - is likely to have declined since June as the business was "adversely affected" by capital constraints during the period, according to Noble's statement.

In addition, the firm made further impairments on oil deals that were excluded from the Vitol sale.

And not all of the proceeds of the oil sale would be paid immediately: According to the deal with Vitol, US$174 million would be paid into three separate escrow accounts. S&P Global Ratings said on Monday that "default risk remains" for Noble as the company's cash balance remains uncertain.

Noble has already started talks with lenders under its US$1.1 billion revolving credit facility, due in May next year, who have agreed to extend until Dec 20 a covenant waiver that was due to expire last week. That is likely to be the first in a series of key deadlines the company must navigate.

In addition, the company has US$379 million in bonds due in March next year, US$1.18 billion in bonds due in 2020 and US$750 million in bonds due in 2022, according to data complied by Bloomberg. It also has a US$400 million perpetual bond.

Ultimately, even if Noble's recently appointed chairman, restructuring expert Paul Brough, can close the deal with Vitol and reach a deal with Noble's creditors, the company still needs to turn around the performance of its core trading business to survive.

"The company will need to demonstrate in the fourth quarter that the bleeding is over, reassure its key staff and convince everybody that they have a realistic game plan for the future," said Mr Lambert. "Not an easy task."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Noble faces hard slog over $4.1b debt pile'. Print Edition | Subscribe