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Noble Group's Elman sees future as smaller, nimble company

[HONG KONG] Noble Group, Asia's biggest commodities trader, expects to ride out the market downturn and recover from recent accounting-related allegations by turning into a nimble and asset-light company, its founder and chairman Richard Elman told Reuters in an interview on Friday.

Mr Elman, 75, said he sees no further disruptions to the business from charges that Noble inflated its assets by billions of dollars by inaccurately representing the value of its contracts.

"We need to go back to being modest and cautious and economical," said Mr Elman, who set up the Hong Kong-based group with US$100,000 in 1986.

Noble was thrust into the spotlight a year ago when Iceberg Research published the first of three detailed reports on the company alleging it inflated its assets.

"Last year, we had to separate our business from rumour and gossip. We got attacked in a very low regulated environment," Mr Elman said in his first media interview in three years.

Singapore-listed Noble rejected Iceberg's claims, and a board-appointed consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers, found the company to have complied with international rules.

"We feel that it's behind us. There is no reason for us to have any further disruption in that sense," Mr Elman told Reuters at his 18th floor office overlooking Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.

Mr Elman, Noble's largest shareholder with more than 22 percent stake in the company, was relaxed as he gave a wide-ranging interview covering the slump in global commodity prices, the outlook for commodity merchants and last year's accounting allegations.

"We are bottoming in terms of the (commodities) cycle. I wouldn't rule out oil going down to $20-$25 a barrel, but I think it's not going to go down to $10," he said, adding oil prices were unlikely to stay at depressed levels for long.

Noble's plans to bring in new investors were taking time, Mr Elman said. "Most sectors are pretty bashed up at the moment, so new money is going to be very selective. People want to investigate the company and they want to understand the people, they want to learn about the business does take time."