Noble exits ag markets with unit sale to China’s COFCO

Noble Group, whose ag assets include this sugar mill in Brazil, is set to become a fully-owned arm of China's COFCO. (ThisIsNoble.com)

New York | Reuters –– Noble Group said Tuesday it has agreed to sell its remaining 49 per cent stake in its agribusiness to China’s state-owned COFCO International, exiting agricultural markets as the Asian commodity merchant seeks to slash debt and shore up cash.

The $750 million cash deal will hand COFCO full ownership of Noble Agri, which handles everything from corn to sugar to cocoa and fertilizer, as China, the world’s top commodities buyer, seeks greater access to food (all figures US$).

It will expand its global footprint in agricultural markets, rivalling the “ABCD” quartet of companies — Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus. It bought an initial 51 per cent stake in Noble Agri in April 2014.

The terms of the deal also include an additional deferred payment if the business is listed on a stock market or sold as well as exposure to future growth of the business worth up to $200 million.

The sale will result in a non-cash loss of $546 million.

Reuters reported the deal last week.

Cash proceeds will go toward paying off debt, exceeding Noble CEO Yusuf Alireza’s pledge last month to raise $500 million through asset sales and strategic transactions, it said.

For Noble, the deal is a major step toward helping the firm retain its investment-grade credit rating and repair investor confidence after a bruising accounting dispute.

The sale will put Noble’s financial metrics in excess of those required of an investment-grade credit, Noble said on Tuesday.

It also eliminates exposure to an asset-heavy industry, which requires operators to own farms, grain elevators and sugar mills and employ thousands of staff to run them.

In 2014, Noble’s agri business, the smallest of its three divisions measured by revenue and profits, employed about 11,000 people, compared with around 1,900 in the rest of the group, according to its annual report.

Shares in Asia’s biggest commodity trader have shed around two-thirds of their value since mid-February when blogger Iceberg Research alleged the company was inflating its assets by billions of dollars by not fairly representing the value of its commodity contracts. Noble rejected the claims and board-appointed consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers found no wrongdoing in a report published in August.

The transaction is subject to approval from Noble shareholders and the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board. No antitrust approvals are required.

The Noble Agri joint venture has not released financial results since it was set up last year. According to Noble’s 2014 annual report, Noble’s agri business reported operating income of $8.3 million and revenue of $11.8 billion.

The sale will remove Noble as a corporate guarantee towards Noble Agri.

Reporting for Reuters by Josephine Mason.

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