It's now time to make money

It's now time to make money
It is possible that Asian commodities traders such as Noble Group may benefit as China's sovereign wealth fund partners them in the efforts to secure its food supplies.

Traders who reckoned now was the hour three months ago have come up trumps with their bets on Asian commodities traders paying off big-time.

NOW, for those not in the know, is the handy acronym for three giant players in this expanding market - Noble Group, Olam International and Wilmar International.

They have certainly rewarded those who were in the know.

Since March, Noble has surged 35.4 per cent and Olam is up 32.9 per cent, bolstered by a takeover offer that was led by Temasek Holdings.

Only Wilmar has underperformed, with its share price down about 7.2 per cent, as traders reacted to losses from its problematic oilseed division.

Together, the three Asian counters making up NOW are challenging ABC - Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill - for dominance in the world's grain trades.

Now, there are plenty of reasons for Noble to be on the upswing. Last month, it reported better-than-expected first-quarter results, with net profits soaring 269 per cent to US$152.3 million (S$190 million).

Its agricultural division - once its key earnings growth driver - narrowed losses sharply to US$79 million from US$180 million a year earlier, while its energy and metals divisions reported better operating margins.

But the big incentive for investors to plough into the stock would have been Noble's move to sell a 51 per cent stake in its agricultural business to China's biggest grain trader, Cofco Corp, for US$1.5 billion.

Olam stock has stayed on a tear, even after Temasek's offer for the rest of its shares at $2.23 apiece expired last month. This has resulted in the Temasek-led consortium now owning 80.4 per cent of the shares.

Since then, Olam has stunned the market, with the stock appreciating by another 6 per cent, even with the removal of the price support as the takeover bid lapsed.

But the best may be yet to come as the region's giant agricultural player, China, flexes its muscles to boost the security of its overseas food supply.

Mr Ding Xuedong, chairman of the US$650 billion China Investment Corp (CIC), flagged a shift in the focus of the sovereign wealth fund to invest in agricultural and global food supplies.

He wrote in the Financial Times recently: "We believe the agriculture sector offers stability as a way of hedging against inflation and a device for spreading risk. We are keen to invest more across the entire value chain - in partnership with governments, multilateral organisations and like-minded institutional investors - in areas that will help to unlock the industry's potential, increase the food supply and offer attractive returns."

In the light of this, it is possible that companies such as Noble, in which CIC already holds a 14 per cent stake, may benefit as the mainland sovereign wealth fund partners them in the efforts to secure China's food supplies.

Citi Investment Research analyst Patrick Yau observed that Noble and Olam have enjoyed a lowering of yield on their debts as they secure strong backers. He wrote: "We maintain a buy on Noble as we see potential ROE (return on equity) improvement as it returns to its roots as an asset-light commodities supply chain manager and potential reduced financing costs."

He also stayed positive on Olam, believing that the agricultural trader could achieve a premium over its costs of investments.

This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
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