Noble Group tumbles as commodity trader's cash dwindles to decade-low

The Singapore-listed company's shares tumbled on Nov 11, 2017, as the embattled commodity trader's cash holdings fell to the lowest in more than a decade.
The Singapore-listed company's shares tumbled on Nov 11, 2017, as the embattled commodity trader's cash holdings fell to the lowest in more than a decade.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore-listed Noble Group's shares tumbled on Friday (Nov 11) as the embattled commodity trader's cash holdings fell to the lowest in more than a decade, adding to pressure on what analysts say is an all but inevitable debt restructuring. The bonds due in March also dropped.

The Hong Kong-based trading house posted a third-quarter net loss of US$1.17 billion, taking losses for the year so far above US$3 billion, according to a statement after the close on Thursday. Available cash at continuing operations dropped to just US$262 million at the end of September, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company data. Liquidity headroom - a measure of capital available to fund its business - fell by 43 per cent over the quarter.

More than two years into a crisis marked by accounting criticisms and concern the company is headed for default, Noble Group is offloading once-core operations. The latest loss was flagged two weeks ago, when the company announced the sale of its oil business to Vitol Group. BNP Paribas and JPMorgan Chase & Co are among banks that have predicted the company will probably be forced to restructure its remaining debt of over US$3 billion.

"They're basically still fighting for survival," said Joel Ng, an analyst at KGI Securities Singapore Pte. "The outlook for Noble still remains challenging."

The shares lost as much as 9.3 per cent to 24.5 Singapore cents, the lowest since 1999, and were at 25 cents at 3:02pm, valuing the company at S$328.2 million. The March 2018 bonds dropped 0.9 cents on the dollar to 46.6 cents, the biggest fall in three weeks, while the 2020 bonds rose.

Deutsche Bank flagged Dec 20 as the next "key event to watch," the date on which a covenant waiver from Noble Group's lenders on a revolving credit facility is due to expire. The bank also highlighted the need to track the final proceeds due from the oil unit sale to Vitol, according to a report.

Chairman Paul Brough for the first time gave some details of a plan to raise US$800 million to US$1 billion from further asset sales. He said the company had been preparing to sell assets "including some of our aluminum operations" - a reference to the company's stake in Jamaican alumina refinery Jamalco. Sales could also include Noble's stake in private equity fund Harbour Energy Ltd., as well as other equity stakes and joint ventures, Brough said.

Investors are increasingly focused on which assets the trader can sell He warned that the company "may have to incur further non-cash losses" as it sells assets. Its accounting practices have been under fire for more than two years from critics led by Iceberg Research, who alleged that Noble inflated the value of long-term contracts - in particular so-called level 3 contracts.

The company offered little clarity on its plans with regard to its debt. Paul Jackaman, Noble's chief financial officer, said that discussions with lenders were "live and ongoing across several fronts," without giving further details.

He confirmed that a trade finance facility from Mercuria Energy Group Ltd had been "in place for a while" and "continues to operate well." Bloomberg reported last month that Noble had struck a deal with Mercuria to tap about US$400 million of financing for its Asian coal and iron ore business.

The issue for bondholders is losses from core operations, said Neel Gopalakrishnan, senior credit strategist at DBS Group Holdings. "Unless there are signs of a sustainable earnings turnaround, it is hard to see how the company would address its liquidity issues or present a workable restructuring."

Noble Group has about US$380 million in bonds maturing in March followed by US$1.1 billion in a bank loan in May. More bonds are due in 2020 and 2022. Brough said Noble was "aware of our obligations to our lenders and the repayments that are coming up.

Deutsche Bank estimated Noble Group may have a cash balance of US$640 million at the end of March.

"One could argue this cash will be sufficient to pay US$379 million of the 2018s, but the RCF lenders are unlikely to allow that, in our view," it said, referring to the banks funding the revolving credit facility.