Shares in Noble jumped after the commodities giant said it
was mulling a joint venture involving its struggling agriculture business and a
consortium reportedly including Cofco, fresh from buying control of grain
The Singapore-based coal-to-cotton group said that it was "engaged
in discussions" with an unnamed consortium "in relation to a potential joint
venture around Noble Group's agriculture business".
The consortium reportedly includes Cofco, the Chinese food
giant which bought Nidera last week in a deal valuing the grain trader at about
$4bn including debt.
Cofco chairman Frank Ning at the time underlined the
state-owned company's "strategy to become a global player in the agricultural
industry with a fully integrated value chain".
Noble's agriculture business spans operations from grains
trading to oilseeds crushing in Ukraine to sugar cane processing in Brazil's
Centre South region, where rival agricultural commodities trader Bunge has
already put its sugar business up for sale.
China is a major importer of sugar, besides of grains and
sugar and Cofco, indeed, in 2011 bought control of Australia's Tully Sugar
mill, in northern Queensland.
Into the red
Noble's agriculture business - part of the "Now" group of big Asian ag traders with Olam and Wilmar International - has struggled, being hit in
2011 by the spate in cotton contract defaults stemming from the sharp rise and
fall in prices of the fibre, and last year reporting an $83m loss, despite a
rise in volumes to 46.3m tonnes.
The group's Brazilian cane crushing business was hit last year by the falling price of sugar, besides by some shortfall, of about 400,000 tonnes, against a cane processing target of 13.6m tonnes for 2013.
Yusuf Alireza, the former Goldman Sachs banker now the Noble chief executive said last month that the group was targeting crushing volumes of about 15m tonnes this year, before reaching capacity of 7.4m tonnes in 2015.
However, the drought in Brazil's Centre South cane belt, where Noble's operations are based, has raised concerns over the group's ability to meet this year's target.
"The ongoing drought in Brazil needs to be closely watched,"
HSBC analyst Thilan Wickramasinghe said last week, after Noble unveiled a 48%
tumble to $243.5m in group earnings.
DBS Group said that a recovery in the agriculture business
in the last three months of 2013 had proved "slower than expectations".
Maybank analyst Wei Bin, restating a "hold" rating on Noble
shares, took a more downbeat stance on Brazil's drought, terming it a "cause of
"Noble sources grains, coffee and other agri-commodities from
this South American country and operates four sugar mills there with a total
production capacity of 17.5m tonnes per annum.
"The drought could adversely affect the production of crops
like sugar and coffee and indirectly affect Noble's soybean crushing business
in Argentina," the Singapore-based broker said, adding that it saw a "higher
risk of earnings miss in the next few quarters".
The shares jumped nearly 9% at one point to a two-month high
before easing back to close in Singapore at Sing$5.05.
China's sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corporation,
is the second biggest shareholder in Noble.