Noble shares tumble 9.1% after credit rating cut

A Yancoal mine in Australia. Yancoal is an associate company of the Noble Group, which is likely to have a challenging time ahead given the lacklustre outlook for the commodity sector, say analysts.
A Yancoal mine in Australia. Yancoal is an associate company of the Noble Group, which is likely to have a challenging time ahead given the lacklustre outlook for the commodity sector, say analysts.PHOTO: NOBLE GROUP

Moody's lowers commodity trader's rating to junk over liquidity and profitability concerns

Troubled commodity trader Noble Group has suffered a fresh body blow, book-ending a horrible year for the Singapore-listed company.

Shares of Noble nosedived 9.1 per cent yesterday after Moody's Investors Service cut its credit rating to junk on liquidity concerns.

Noble shares tumbled four cents to 40 cents as traders digested Moody's verdict, sinking to its lowest level in about seven years. The stock, down a whopping 65 per cent so far this year, has been losing ground since research outfit Iceberg Research attacked the group's accounting practices in February, amid the collapse in commodity prices. It has also wound up as the biggest loser on the Straits Times Index.

Noble's dollar bonds due in 2020, its most liquid, suffered as well, dropping to their lowest point since they were issued in 2009.

Credit rating agency Moody's cited worries over Noble's liquidity, profitability and cash flow, especially as weak commodity prices could persist for years. It had earlier this month cut Swiss trading house Glencore to its lowest investment grade rating and placed BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, under review.

The agency also said Noble suffers from low profitability and negative cash flow from its core operations, and expects its ability to gain consistent access to bond markets to remain constrained.

Noble, in a statement yesterday morning, said: "While we respect Moody's decision, we are of the firm view that once the just announced Noble Agri deal closes, our rating metrics will substantially exceed those required of an investment grade credit."

Noble last week agreed to sell its remaining 49 per cent stake in its agriculture unit to China's Cofco Corp for at least US$750 million (S$1.06 billion) in a bid to reduce debt.

According to Reuters, Noble's chief executive, Mr Yusuf Alireza, noted in a separate letter to employees that the group's financials were improving and did not warrant the "unexpected" downgrade.

"We clearly feel this decision does not reflect the positive ratings impact of the recent Noble Agri deal, but rather follows on from their recent lowering of ratings across the entire commodity sector.

"It seems that Moody's credit committee were not able to differentiate between an environment that is clearly challenging for upstream players and one that opens up opportunities for an asset-light trader like ourselves."

IG market strategist Bernard Aw told The Straits Times that Moody's downgrade will first affect the company's financing costs, as lenders will have to consider a higher risk of default.

"Certain funds may also have to withdraw from the counter," he noted. "But as long as Noble is on the STI, it's not likely to be abandoned by fund managers."

Meanwhile, Standard & Poor's (S&P) said last month it is reviewing Noble's debt rating, which it may cut to junk on liquidity concerns.

Mr Aw believes there is "a high chance" that S&P will downgrade Noble, as it has already put the company's BBB- rating, its lowest investment grade, on a negative outlook. However, Fitch Ratings is unlikely to do the same, given that its rating for Noble still has a stable outlook.

The year ahead, he added, will "remain challenging" for Noble, given the lacklustre outlook for the commodity sector. "But Noble shares look to be able to continue holding the 40 cent line, which it has already done so several times despite the negative news through this year."

  • Additional reporting by Wong Wei Han
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Noble shares tumble 9.1% after credit rating cut'. Print Edition | Subscribe