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2014-05-16 19:30:00



Noble Group, one of the world's leading commodities traders, enjoyed a strong start to the year with first-quarter profits more than trebling as it benefited from increased volatility and soaring gas and power prices in North America.

The Hong Kong-based company, which has a market value of $6.5bn, reported net profits of $152.3m in three months to March, up from $41.3m in the same period a year earlier, and easily beating market forecasts. Revenues fell 7 per cent to $18bn.

The sharp rise in profits was driven by a record performance from Noble's oil, gas and power division where operating income jumped 19 per cent to $437m.

Yusuf Alireza, chief executive, said the business benefited from the wild swings in energy prices caused by North America's coldest winter in three decades. It also cashed in on rising US ethanol prices.

"Our business is moving physical molecules from point A to point B and managing the credit, market and operational risk associated with that. When there's more volatility . . . people will pay us more to do that," he said.

Noble joins a group of investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup to have reported stronger trading results as a polar vortex slammed the US.

"Noble saw an exceptional first quarter due to the exceptionally cold winter in the USA," wrote analysts at CLSA. "This drove natural gas volatility through the roof, which supported a 22 per cent improvement in operating margins.

There was also in improved performance from the company agricultural business where post tax losses narrowed from $180.4m a year ago to $78.8m.

"Even on a theoretically normalized tax rate the result would have come in on the order of $143m, i.e. a big beat," said analysts at Macquarie.

Noble has agreed to sell a majority stake in its agriculatural division to China National Cereals, Oil and Foodstuffs Corp, China's state-owned grains trader.

Proceeds from the $1.5bn sale will be used to pay down net debt – which was $4.83bn at the end of March – and fund the expansion of Noble's energy and metals units, which also reported a sharp increase in profits on the back of record premiums for immediately-deliverable aluminium.

The company, which counts China Investment Corp as one of its biggest shareholders, has been aggressively expanding its metals minerals and ores business. It has ploughed $500m in X2 Resources, the new mining venture of former Xstrata chief executive Mick Davis.

In return, the company the commodities trader will be the "preferred marketer" for the vehicle and manage its supply chain and logistics.

Shares in Noble have risen 14.5 per cent this year.




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