Pressure on Noble Group as Vitol says talks to buy oil trading unit may not end in deal

The sale of the oil business is crucial to the survival of Noble Group.
The sale of the oil business is crucial to the survival of Noble Group. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

lONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Vitol Group's negotiations to buy Noble Group's oil trading unit are "very complicated" and may not end in a deal, the chief executive officer of Vitol said, adding to pressure on his Hong Kong-based rival.

The sale of the oil business is crucial to the survival of Noble Group, once Asia's largest commodity trader. It is rushing to sell the unit in order to pay back about US$1 billion of debt under its secured credit facilities, of which the largest matures in mid-January.

"We're engaged; we have been talking to Noble," Ian Taylor told Bloomberg TV on Wednesday (Oct 18) in the first public confirmation by the world's largest independent oil trader that it is bidding for its rival's business.

But he warned that the talks may not end in an agreement.

"It's a very, very complicated deal. There are some technicalities," he said. "It's very difficult to know exactly how that's going to end, I'm afraid." Asked whether the stumbling block was price, he replied that it was "more the overall terms and conditions" of the deal.

A spokeswoman for Noble Group in London declined to comment. On Thursday, its shares were unchanged at 38.5 Singapore cents at 9:26am. The stock has lost 77 per cent in 2017, extending a two-year slide.

Bloomberg reported last week that Vitol was in advanced talks to buy the business, which trades about 2.5 million barrels a day of crude and refined products.

But the talks have been complicated by issues including how much of the sale price should be paid into an escrow account, according to people familiar with the matter. An earlier deal to sell Noble's smaller gas- and power-trading unit to Mercuria Energy Group reaped less than anticipated as Mercuria paid 45 per cent of the total sale consideration into an escrow account.

Noble's negotiations with its lenders have also complicated the oil sale, the people said. The trader has a covenant waiver on a US$1.1 billion credit facility that will expire at the end of this week unless Noble can secure an agreement to extend it.

What's more, while Vitol is keen to acquire some parts of Noble's business, such as a long-term contract for shipping via the Colonial pipeline, it is less interested in other loss-making businesses that would probably have to be shut down or sold, the people said. Noble is insisting on selling the unit as a whole.

"They've got lots of businesses," Taylor said. "They obviously are looking for a clean deal." Initially, Noble Group had said it was aiming to announce an agreement by the end of September.

Noble Group has been under increasing pressure since May, when a surprise trading loss compounded a long-running crisis that saw its market value collapse by more than 90 percent and its bonds tumble to less than 50 cents on the dollar.

The company warned of the risk of bankruptcy at two of its major subsidiaries in audited accounts filed in recent weeks in the UK and Singapore. In particular, it highlighted in a filing by subsidiary Noble Resources UK Holdings Ltd that its ability to meet its obligations was dependent on factors including "asset monetization plans being carried out successfully.