S&P Just Warned Asia's Largest Commodity Trader It May Be Junked

The name Noble Group should be familiar to frequent readers from our August 18 report on the company, but to those who are unfamiliar here is the quick summary: because it is Asia's largest commodity trader, Noble can be better thought of as Asia's Glencore.

As a further reminder, on August 18 we said that "we expect a big announcement of S&P on Noble Group later this week" as a result of the ongoing deterioration in the company's fundamentals as well as various market-traded securities, notably its stocks and default swaps.

As usual, S&P was late, but just over three months later, the rating agency finally came out with the catalyst we have been expecting when moments ago it said that it had "placed its 'BBB-' long-term corporate credit rating on Hong Kong-based supply-chain management service provider Noble Group Ltd. and the  'BBB-' issue rating on the company's senior unsecured notes on CreditWatch  with negative implications."

In other words, Asia's Glencore is about to be junked. Here's why, from S&P:

The CreditWatch action reflects our view that Noble's liquidity and financial leverage have weakened and breached levels that we consider appropriate for the current rating. However, management's commitment to raise new capital could support the company's credit profile.

 

Noble's liquidity deteriorated in the third quarter of 2015 following a 27% decline in the company's net available readily marketable inventory to US$1.48 billion as of September 2015 from US$2.0 billion in June 2015. The deterioration was largely related to the fall in commodities prices. The company's available and undrawn committed credit lines fell almost 50% during the period to about US$1 billion. The company's cash sources are less than 1.5x cash uses as of September 2015, below the threshold for a "strong" liquidity assessment.

Worse, S&P has given Noble a deadline of three months in which to raise a lot of capital, or else be downgraded to junk, a rating which could effectively end its trading business, and ultimately could lead to a liquidation of the entire company.

The rest of the note:

Noble's financial leverage is also weak for the rating. The company's ratio of funds from operations (FFO) to debt is 19.8% as of September 2015 on a rolling 12-month basis. This is a similar level to that in June 2015, but down from 24% in March 2015. In our view, the company's cash flow and earnings visibility are poor amid a challenging market. We expect that the company will commit to its stated strategy of focusing on profitability, and having prudent working capital management and cost controls to help offset market  volatilities.

 

We believe the Noble management's commitment to raise at least US$500 million in new capital could help restore the company's liquidity position and financial leverage, which will be key to maintaining the current rating. In our opinion, if Noble were able to raise at least US$500 million in capital to offset its outstanding debt, the ratio of FFO to debt could improve to about 22%. The company has a good track record of raising capital through recycling assets and attracting new investors, in our opinion. 

 

We aim to resolve the CreditWatch placement in three months. We will review Noble's liquidity trends and financial leverage to see if the company's capital-raising and cost-cutting measures are adequate to weather the heightened volatility in the global commodities market.

 

We may lower the rating by one notch if: (1) Noble's liquidity does not improve, such that its cash sources are unable to cover uses by at least 1.5x. This could happen if the company is unable to raise sufficient capital per its commitment or its cash generation and working capital controls are weaker than we expect; or (2) Noble's financial leverage does not improve over the next three months, such that the ratio of FFO to debt remains below 25%. This could happen if the company cannot raise new capital or if its earnings and profitability deteriorate. We could lower the rating by two or more notches if both conditions above are not met within the next three months.

 

We could also downgrade Noble if the company's trading risk position weakens. Possible indications of such weakness include increases in fair value relating to long-term commodity offtake contracts, concentration risk of counterparties, or lower cash realization of commodity contracts than the company expects.

 

We could affirm the rating if we believe the weakening of Noble's liquidity is temporary and the company has a credible plan and shows strong execution to restore its financial strength. Noble's ratio of cash sources to cash uses staying above 1.5x and its FFO-to-debt ratio rising above 25% on a sustained basis could indicate such improvement. At the same time, we expect the company to demonstrate continued cash realization of marked-to-market gains and prudent risk management of fair value financial assets, including offtake contracts.

Just like for Glencore, a downgrade to junk would trigger an unknown amount of collateral and margin calls, promptly sucking up the company's liquidity.

Which probably explains why Noble's CDS which was trading at ~700 bps when we first profiled the company more than 3 months ago, has since doubled.

August 18:

 

And November 23:

 

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Finally, for those who missed it, here was the original Noble Group report courtesy of Simon Jacques

Trust is everything in commodity trading, it is also what is maintaining a constant risk premia in this market.

Noble Group is Asia’s largest commodities trader.

According to GMT research, Noble Group took what they have estimated as between $4 to $6 billions worth of fair value gains on asset valuation over the last 5 years.

Just prior their Q2 earnings release, we published the reasons outlining why we believe that the trader is an accounting hocus-pocus.

Since we are exactly one week after their Q2 results, in theory Standard and Poor’s had time to do their homework.

We expect a big announcement of S&P on Noble Group later this week.

UK insurers (who have also a foot in the cargo insurance market) have dumped Noble Group bonds overnight.

The S&P downgrade was leaked or they have just anticipated it.

Bonds maturing 2020 now trading in mid 80’s; private bank clients waking up to risks? Company no longer has access to capital markets.

6 months after repeated ­assurances from Alireza that the financial accounting inquiry’s findings would not trigger a scramble for capital,  5 yrs CDS paper quoted at 743 bps, stands at the highest level since 2009, 100bps bid-ask

Energy credit analysts wonder where Noble Group’s financing will come from going forward with the downgrades.

The trader will lose its access to their counter parties because of stricter limitations to deal with them now.

Below is an excellent interview from GMT Research founder Gillem Tulloch made on Bloomberg Television.