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Noble in talks with Cofco over agriculture tie-up

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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 trader Nidera.

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".

'Grave concern'

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 grave concern".

"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.


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