“We unfortunately live in world where knowing that you run your business professionally is not enough,” the CEO of Noble wrote in a letter to stakeholders in February. “You must be able to prove it.”
But will he walk the talk? Two big funds* think so and have been buying. Maybe they have been assured on the following?
[A] chunk of the profits Noble reports comes from non-cash gains created by “marking to market” long-term contracts (eg, to supply coal) and derivatives it holds. Iceberg is not accusing Noble of fraud, but it is questioning how realistic these valuations are and asking how much of the company’s reported profits are the result of this practice. Noble reported that at the end of 2014 the net fair value of these positions was $4.6 billion, equivalent to 91% of its book value.
It is hard to tell from what Noble discloses in its accounts whether its valuations are indeed fair; and since it is also unclear how much of its profits come from such changes in valuation, it is difficult to assess how robust its profits are. Noble did not respond to requests from The Economist for comment. The firm’s cashflow has been weak. Over the past three years it has booked net profits of almost $1 billion but negative cashflow of almost $2 billion, after working-capital, capital-investment and interest costs.
On March 5th it issued an 11-page rebuttal, suggesting that a disgruntled ex-employee was behind Iceberg. It also gave more detail about the “fair value” positions. They reflect over 12,000 individual contracts, almost half of which mature within two years. Over the past three years the firm has realised $800m of cash from such positions. Yet the rebuttal omitted a vital piece of information: how much profit has been booked from these positions. Without this nugget it is hard to form a sensible judgment about Noble’s books or health.
*A unit of insurer Prudential, and Invesco increased their stakes in the company. [Added at 1.40pm]