News analysis

Noble is taking right steps, but its outlook is still mixed

Recent share gains point to recovery, but it still has to cope with weak commodity prices

Noble Group has taken some right steps to get back on track after being derailed by the Iceberg saga, and the efforts are one reason why its shares have seen strong gains in recent weeks.

But it remains to be seen if things have really changed for the battered commodity trader.

The price of Noble shares has put on 30.4 per cent since Oct 1 to close at 51.5 cents yesterday, a marked rebound that was above STI's 8.1 per cent rally over the same period.

Noble's latest recovery came as part of the overall market momentum, but the company's efforts to address investor concerns have also helped, OCBC Investment Research analyst Carey Wong said.

"In the past few months, we've seen the company taking pains to change its corporate governance practices and the make-up of the board, while renewing its business focus on more profitable areas."

Mr Wong was referring to initiatives, including the investor day in mid-August, when chief executive Yusuf Alireza addressed questions from the public.

Mr Alireza intended for these actions to silence Iceberg Research, which has been accusing the firm of exploiting accounting loopholes since February.

These accusations centred on Noble's asset and contract valuations, which Iceberg claimed that Noble has manipulated to hide cash flow and debt problems.

Together with the global commodity woes, the Iceberg saga severely damaged investor sentiments, sending Noble's shares down around 64 per cent since the first accusation emerged and before the recovery this month.

In his defence, Mr Alireza has repeatedly stressed that Noble has more than enough liquidity - at US$5.2 billion (S$7.2 billion) as of June 30 - to service short-term debt. Its net debt at US$4.33 billion was also down 20 per cent from a year ago.

The perceived issues around Noble's financials are debatable, Mr Wong noted, adding: "Commodity trading requires a high working capital, so there's no saying what debt level is acceptable in this industry. Nonetheless, I expect Noble to self-impose a gearing limit to further improve its balance sheet."

IG market analyst Bernard Aw was less certain, saying: "Certainly the level of disclosure has improved, but more can be done to reveal more details on valuation methods."

But while Noble has made progress in addressing criticisms, it is still facing formidable industry headwinds. Noble manages a global supply chain that sells and moves products, including oil liquids, metals and energy coal.

The challenging environment led to another 5 per cent year-on-year drop in net profit as revenue dropped 22 per cent in the three months ended June 30.

Mr Wong said: "With crude oil prices stabilising at around US$50 per barrel, Noble may have seen the worst, but there is no catalyst for the market to be upbeat."

Crude oil prices are the leading indicator of commodity prices that are tumbling across the board. Oil prices have pared around 50 per cent since January last year, with copper and coal prices also down around 30 per cent in the same period.

Mr Aw remains neutral on Noble's outlook: "The sluggish global growth and the slowdown in China suggest that commodity demand will remain weak going into next year. It needs to focus on stabilising top line first before it can hope to boost earnings."

Noble has attempted this to some extent, recently moving to scale back its struggling metal businesses and reallocating capital to the more profitable energy business.

Has Noble turned a corner? The answer will probably lie ahead in its quarterly financial results.

Investors will be paying special attention, not merely to the state of its balance sheet but, more importantly, to its bottom line.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Noble is taking right steps, but its outlook is still mixed'. Subscribe