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Noble disputes regulators' allegations of improper accounting

It says it will submit a comprehensive response to Acra's assessments and questions relating to its figures

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Commodities trader Noble Group is disputing allegations of possible accounting irregularities by regulators, who have relied on those potential inaccuracies to block a key step in the company's restructuring plans.

Singapore

COMMODITIES trader Noble Group is disputing allegations of possible accounting irregularities by regulators, who have relied on those potential inaccuracies to block a key step in the company's restructuring plans.

Noble, in a filing to the Singapore Exchange (SGX) on Friday, defended some of its accounting practices that it said had been challenged by Singapore's Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra). The issues highlighted included its derivative treatment of variable marketing contracts, its recognition of gains and losses, its treatment of overhead costs and its classification of current and non-current assets.

The company said that it will submit a comprehensive response to Acra's assessments and questions.

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Noble also said that investigations by Singapore authorities are not targeting any individuals from the company.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), one of the three regulators involved in the probe, told The Business Times (BT) that its scrutiny encompasses Noble, its subsidiary Noble Resources International, as well as their officers.

Those comments came a day after MAS, Singapore Exchange Regulation (SGX RegCo) and the Singapore Police Force's Commercial Affairs Department said that they would not allow Noble to proceed with the part of its restructuring plan that involves re-listing on SGX as New Noble.

Acra had determined during investigations that the net asset value (NAV) of New Noble, which was to assume Noble's listing status on the stock exchange as part of the embattled trader's massive US$3.5 billion debt revamp plan, could have been grossly overstated.

Consequently, Noble's NAV could be reduced by 40 to 45 per cent.

But Noble disagreed with Acra. The company highlighted that, going by Acra's position, its pro forma net losses would also be cut by 45 to 99 per cent.

The focus on Noble's accounts has raised questions about why and how there could be so much uncertainty and dispute over the company's numbers.

Themin Suwardy, associate professor of accounting practice at Singapore Management University, said that commodities traders in general depend largely on estimates in their accounting treatment.

Prof Suwardy told BT that he is not privy to what accounting irregularities had been alleged by Acra in Noble's case.

However, he added that because commodities traders are dealing in the future value of assets, it is therefore very possible that there are different inputs, variables and valuation models that could result in very different net financial asset values.

Prof Suwardy said: "If you are trading commodities at a future date, you cannot run away from estimates."

He cited the company's 2015 annual report as an example, and pointed out that the word "estimate" appeared 62 times in the notes of the financial statements.

The academic said that there are three levels of "fair value hierarchy" in trying to determine the worth of a financial instrument.

Level 1 is the most tangible, best because the inputs are quoted prices in active markets for identical assets or liabilities that the entity can access at the measurement date.

Level 2 inputs are observable for the asset or liability, either directly or indirectly.

Level 3 inputs, however, are unobservable for the asset or liability, so estimates and variables are used to plug into valuation models.

Using Noble's 2015 annual report again as a reference, Prof Suwardy noted that 97 per cent of the Hong Kong-based trader's net financial assets are not determined by Level 1 inputs.

The heavy use of estimates and assumptions to determine fair value is not, on the face of it, wrong, Prof Suwardy said. But it does make the accounts susceptible to vastly different values depending on the assumptions used.

"When the use of Level 2 and Level 3 estimates is very significant, investors reading the details (in the notes of the financial statement) should exercise adequate caution that these are management's estimates, but deemed reasonable by auditors. What is reasonable at one point in time may of course be different from reality, that is ex-ante (forecast) versus ex-post (actual) can be very different," he highlighted.

Lee Kin Wai, associate professor of accounting at Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, said that companies should use valuation techniques that are appropriate to the circumstances, and for which sufficient data is available. They should maximise the use of relevant observable inputs such as quoted prices, and minimise the use of unobservable inputs.

RSM Chio Lim audit partner Lock Chee Wee told BT that valuing contracts to current prices is standard practice for derivatives. But if one can satisfy the strict criteria of hedge accounting, it is possible to defer the derivative's fair value losses or gains until an actual transaction takes place.

Without knowing the details about Noble, however, Mr Lock declined further comment.