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Exclusive: Noble Group mulls raising funds from strategic investor - source

The company logo of Noble Group is seen at its headquarters in Hong Kong March 23, 2015. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

By Anshuman Daga

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Noble Group (NOBG.SI) is considering issuing a convertible note to a strategic investor, one of several steps the commodities trader is assessing to revive investor confidence after a damaging accounting dispute, a person with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Noble's shareholders and partners have urged the Singapore-listed company to make a deal that would strengthen its ties with a credible partner, a move that could possibly bring in new business.

A spokeswoman for Noble declined to comment on the matter.

Noble has been approached by investors interested in its commodities contracts, valued at $4.1 billion, and it does not rule out the option of going private, the source added.

By issuing a convertible security rather than tapping shareholders for additional equity Noble would secure funding, avoid near-term dilution and offer the partner a cheap entry into the company, which has lost about 50 percent of its market value since its contract assumptions came under attack in February.

"(A convertible) sends a strong message to the market. It makes sure that Noble does not do something that is dilutive to equity at a time when the company does not need additional equity," the source said but stressed that there is no certainty that a deal will take place.

Asia's biggest commodity trader, already under pressure in a weak commodities market, hit the spotlight in February when blogger Iceberg Research alleged the company was inflating its assets by billions of dollars by not fairly representing the value of its commodity contracts.Noble has rejected the claims and board-appointed consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers found no wrongdoing in a report published on Monday.

Noble's shares rallied on Tuesday, but ended the session 2 percent lower.

The source did not name the partner Noble was looking at.

Bankers say China Investment Corp (CIC), Noble's second-largest shareholder which owns a stake of about 9 percent, is a likely candidate. Noble's top shareholder is chairman and founder Richard Elman, who owns about a fifth of its shares.

The Chinese sovereign wealth fund had cut its stake in Noble in September 2014 and has not made any public comment on the company since the accounting problems.

CIC was not available for comment.

Rival commodity trader Olam (OLAM.SI) was rescued by Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings in late 2012 through a bonds-with-warrants issue, helping to draw a line under attacks from short-seller Muddy Waters over its finances.

The source said that Noble was exploring all options, including the possibility of going private. "Nothing is off the table at this point," the source said.

Another source familiar with the situation said that Noble had hired former Citigroup banker Michael Klein to advise it. Klein had helped broker merger talks between Glencore and Xstrata. A call to Klein's office was not returned.

The first source said Noble had been approached by investors to sell part of its commodity contracts that make up the majority of its balance sheet.

"That is definitely one of the options. On the back of the PwC review, Noble is in a much stronger negotiating position," the source said.

"Given the heightened scrutiny Noble is under, it is time for Noble to liquidate some of its $2.4 billion inventory balance or $4.1 billion contract book in order to show positive operating cash flow," CreditSights analysts said in a report on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Gui Qing in BEIJING and Mike Stone in NEW YORK; Editing by Lisa Jucca and Louise Heavens)