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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

$4.9bn loss puts Noble on brink of collapse

The company that was once Asia’s largest commodity trader has been brought to its knees after a three-year crisis and may not survive latest blow

The company logo of Noble Group is seen at its headquarters in Hong Kong March. Bobby Yip/Reuters
The company logo of Noble Group is seen at its headquarters in Hong Kong March. Bobby Yip/Reuters

Noble Group said a controversial debt restructuring was the only hope for survival after a $4.94 billion loss triggered a warning from its auditor that the commodity trader may not be able to continue operating.

Chairman Paul Brough said he had "no magic pill" for investors facing hefty losses under a planned restructuring that would halve Noble’s $3.5bn debt. He warned that no deal with a strategic investor was likely before the restructuring is completed, and that the alternative to the deal was a court-driven insolvency process that would be "very damaging indeed".

"What we’re focused on is trying to get all of the parties over the line," Mr Brough said. "I do accept that it requires an allocation of some pain and discomfort, but I’m afraid that there’s no magic pill to solve it."

The company that was once Asia’s largest commodity trader has been brought to the brink of collapse after a three-year crisis marked by losses and writedowns. In annual results on Wednesday, its auditor Ernst & Young pointed to the trader’s huge loss, bank debt and negative net assets as indicating the “existence of material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt over the group’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

A preliminary deal struck by the company and a group of large hedge fund creditors last month has encountered resistance from some bondholders and shareholders. In a fresh blow just hours before the earnings, a group of perpetual bondholders said they’d fight the plan.

The deal, which Noble says would allow it to continue operating, would hand the lion’s share of the company’s remaining value to creditors willing to participate in a new trade finance facility. That’ll include hedge funds from the so-called ad hoc group that’s underwriting the facility. What’s more, Noble’s management will receive an equity stake of as much as 20 per cent.

“It’s wholly unclear to me why unsecured creditors are giving this team the chance to vaporise their capital all over again,” said Alex Turnbull, Singapore-based managing partner at Keshik Capital. "How bad could this business be with new management? The current team could catch fire in a swimming pool."

Noble is still racing to agree the final terms of the deal with the ad-hoc group, something Brough said he hoped to achieve in the next few days or weeks.

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“Time is of the essence, we appreciate that,” Mr Brough said. Noble’s advisers have described the deal as "probably the most complex restructuring ever undertaken in Asia", he added.

He declined to say whether Noble would pay a coupon on its 2022 bond or repay its 2018 bond, both of which are due in March. Noble paid a coupon on its 2020 bond last month "in order to maintain our franchise", Mr Brough said.

Noble executives and their rivals at other traders expect that some key counterparties could walk away from long-term contracts with the company in the event of a restructuring or default, putting further strain on the business, Bloomberg reported in November.

Noble’s downfall was triggered in February 2015 when an unknown analyst group called Iceberg Research published scathing critiques of the company’s accounting, warning some earnings wouldn’t materialise and the trader would be short on cash to settle debts.

While Noble has consistently dismissed the criticism, much of what Iceberg flagged has since come to pass and the company’s market value has collapsed amid asset sales, downgrades and vast losses. The trader is now worth about $159 million compared with more than $10bn in 2010. On Thursday, the shares fell as much as 8.1 per cent, dropping for a sixth day.

The full-year loss included $1.05bn from operations the company has sold as it shrinks to survive, as well as $3.2bn in exceptional items from businesses that remain, according to the statement. Cash and equivalents fell to $492m at end-December, from $1.2bn a year earlier.

Under the restructuring plan, which is backed by some senior creditors, about half of the Hong Kong-based company’s $3.5bn debt will be switched into new equity, while perpetual bondholders are being offered just a few cents on the dollar. All existing shareholders will get a 10 per cent holding, and management could own as much as 20 per cent.

The group of perpetual bondholders resisting the push have hired Latham & Watkins to negotiate a better deal, according to a statement earlier on Wednesday. Separately, one of the top shareholders, Goldilocks Investment, has complained of enormous dilution, called the losses “extremely shocking”, and is appealing for other investors to fight.