Noble Group shareholders approve US$3.5b debt restructuring

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SINGAPORE (Aug 27): Noble Group Ltd won approval on Monday from a majority of shareholders for a US$3.5 billion debt restructuring plan that should ensure the survival of what was once Asia's biggest commodity trader.

Faced with the prospect of the company's insolvency, shareholders reluctantly backed a debt-for-equity swap that will leave them with ownership of just 20% of the business, while handing majority control to a group of creditors comprised mainly of hedge funds.

"Today, the decision to avoid liquidation rests in your hands," Noble Chairman Paul Brough told shareholders at a packed meeting before the voting began.

Small shareholders at the meeting told Reuters they were angry with Noble's management as the plan diluted their investment value, but added they saw no choice but to support the plan in order to save at least some of their investment.

Roger Ong, 49, a driver who has invested in Noble shares said he had no choice but to vote in favour of the plan.

"We want to keep the company afloat rather than liquidate it," he said.

Noble, founded in 1986 by Richard Elman, who took advantage of a commodities bull run to build it into one of the world's biggest traders, has had its market value all but wiped out from US$6 billion in February 2015.

The crisis for the company started that month after Arnaud Vagner, a former employee, published reports anonymously under the name of Iceberg Research that accused Noble of inflating its assets. The upheaval triggered a share price collapse, credit downgrades, writedowns and asset sales.

Singapore-listed Noble has always stood by its accounts.

Under the debt-for-equity deal, the company's debt will be halved and it will get access to trade finance and hedging facilities, vital in a sector where profit margins are in the low single digits.

In return, Noble will hand over 70% of its restructured business to creditors, while existing shareholders' equity will be reduced to 20% and its management will get 10%.

Noble only needed a simple majority of the voters in attendance at Monday's meeting to approve the plan for the debt restructuring to go ahead.

The company's shareholders include sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp, Abu Dhabi-based fund Goldilocks Investment Co Ltd and Eastspring Investments, as well as retail investors.

Trading in Noble's shares were earlier halted pending an announcement.

In its glory days, Noble employed hundreds of traders, with ambitions to rival competitors like Glencore but it had to sell off prized assets, including its oil and gas units, to rivals Vitol and Mercuria.

Analysts say Noble still faces an uphill battle, with its losses widening to US$128 million during the April to June quarter from US$72 million in the first quarter.

“This will not stop securities holders (existing and those who have already sold) from suing the individuals and organisations responsible,” Iceberg Research said in a note on Monday.