| SINGAPORE/HONG KONG
SINGAPORE/HONG KONG China's state-owned Sinochem is in early talks with Noble Group to buy an equity stake in the embattled trader, three sources familiar with the matter said, in a move that would help it gain access to the commodity trader's global supply chain.
Taking a stake in an internationally active trading house like Noble would help Sinochem, a big oil, gas and petrochemical company, in its ambitions to become a more globally active energy trader, and also develop China's gas industry.
The discussions are taking place as Singapore-listed Noble looks to rejig its business units, cut debt and boost liquidity to fight a long-term downtrend in commodity prices.
In November, Hong Kong-headquartered Noble said it had met its capital raising target of $2 billion as it sold assets, completed a rights issue and restructured its operations.
The sources said the talks have not been completed and there is no assurance that a deal will be finalised.
They said senior Noble executives visited China in recent months to hold talks with Sinochem's management, and both sides also met at Noble's U.S. regional hub in Stamford, Connecticut.
The sources declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Sinochem did not immediately return a request for comment.
Responding to the Reuters story, Noble told the Singapore exchange on Tuesday that it was holding talks but did not give details.
"The board wishes to advise that Noble Group is currently engaged in discussions regarding a possible strategic investment in Noble Group," it said.
"However, no binding arrangements have as yet been entered into with respect to this possible transaction and, accordingly, there can be no assurance that this transaction will be concluded."
Noble already has the backing of Chinese sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp. (CIC), which participated in the company's rights issue last year. The capital raising followed a slump in investor confidence as Noble's accounting practices were questioned by Iceberg Research.
CIC has a 9.6 percent stake in Noble, while Noble Chairman Richard Elman holds a stake of about 18 percent.
The size of the planned stake or the amount to be invested by Sinochem has not yet been finalised, and any deal could face scrutiny in China as authorities there try to control capital outflows, sources said.
The appeal of Noble for Sinochem is likely to be access to its global supply chain.
A Sinochem source said the company was still conducting due diligence on Noble, which typically takes six months to a year. He said the company was looking at Noble's North America energy trading, which could complement Sinochem's existing portfolio.
Noble specializes in shipping and storage logistics, rather than owning large production assets or refineries, and is also a major player in gasoline blending in the United States.
Noble is also targeting Asia's emerging liquefied natural gas (LNG) market as a core growth area, while Sinochem is likely to play a key role in China's plans to expand its natural gas sector to reduce the share of polluting coal in its energy mix.
Access to Noble's LNG trading network could help with the Chinese plans.
(Reporting by Anshuman Daga in SINGAPORE and Sumeet Chatterjee in HONG KONG; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein and Florence Tan in SINGAPORE and Hallie Gu in BEIJING; Editing by Will Waterman and Stephen Coates)