Noble Group may see some light at the end of a months-long tunnel of attacks from critics, with commodity trader's share price surge following an independent report on its accounting suggesting a shift in market sentiment.
"Regaining investor confidence is a long-drawn process, but we think Noble has made a good start here," Abhijit Attavar, an analyst at Jefferies, said in a note Monday. "We are close to an inflection point in investor sentiment for the shares."
The commodity trader's stock jumped as much as 11.2 percent to as high as 0.645 Singapore cents in early trade, before retracing to trade up around 4.3 percent around midday; the overall market was down, with the Straits Times Index shedding 0.8 percent. Noble's stock is still down around 50 percent since February, when then-anonymous Iceberg Research published the first of a series of negative reports, with the first headlined "Noble Group, a repeat of Enron."
Tuesday's share gains come despite the company also reporting earnings that disappointed analysts, with second-quarter net profit falling 5 percent on-year, weighed by weak results in the metals unit.
But traders are focusing on two key news points, Nicholas Teo, market analyst at CMC Markets, said in a note Tuesday, citing the release of the independent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) review, which found Noble's accounting was in line with international standards, and media reports that the company had hired dealmaker Michael Klein to review options, such as raising secure financing or selling a stake in the company.
"While these two developments are anything but confirmed, just the fact that these developments are in the 'background' may bring about some degree of short covering," Teo said.
It isn't clear how well the PwC report has assuaged critics concerns over the company's accounting practices.
"The report can't be a catch-all. PwC was called in to do a specific task, so you don't expect them to look at everything within one short month," said Carey Wong, an analyst at OCBC. While waiting for next week's "investor day" with the company, he's sticking with a Hold call on the stock, but he cut his fair value to 0.60 Singapore dollars from 0.69 Singapore dollars after lowering earnings estimates on the bearish outlook on commodities.
Others didn't see the PwC report as offering much that was new.
"PwC's positive assurance is not a surprise to the market," Wei Bin, an analyst at Maybank Kim Eng, said in a note Tuesday. "We also think Noble is improving its transparency. We expect Noble to enhance and formalize procedures for back testing and stress testing of the portfolio as suggested by PwC."
But that was not enough for him to change his view of the company much. While keeping a Hold call, he cut his target to S$0.64 from S$0.75 after lowering earnings forecasts, citing in part profit deterioration in the metals division.
The PwC report doesn't appear to have mollified the legion of critics of Noble's accounting methods, however.
"Our criticisms were not that the accounting methods are wrong, etc. but that they appear to be aggressive," Robert Medd, an analyst at independent research firm GMT Research, said in a note to a client. "Just because you can do something does not mean you should and while PWC approved the process and the accounting treatment, they did not comment on the validity of the inputs."
To be sure, the PwC report said it didn't just examine Noble's policies for its valuation models. "In the case of each contract reviewed by us, we also obtained the detailed valuation model and checked the application of the relevant criteria to the construction of the model. This included an examination of all the inputs as well as the construction of the model itself," the PwC report said.
Medd still wants to see Noble improve disclosure, including on how much of its net present value (NPV) gains are from businesses not yet in production as well as a breakout of the inventory hedges from the NPV gains.
Medd still wants to see Noble improve disclosure, including on how much of its net present value (NPV) gains are from businesses not yet in production as well as break out the inventory hedges from the NPV gains.
He was also unimpressed with the earnings.
"They appear to be being squeezed by suppliers," he said. "Unless Noble Agri can be turned around, unlikely and/or commodity price demand turns around, Noble is in real danger of running up against its credit limits or worse."
Iceberg Research, which set off the scrimmage over the shares, was scathing of the report.
"PwC merely answered the question: are Noble's mark-to-market formally in compliance with accounting rules, which is what [company auditor] EY has been doing for years," Iceberg said in an emailed statement. "Enron was also largely in compliance with accounting rules. This review will fail to answer the market's concerns. The market wants to know the real value of these MTM [mark-to-market], not whether Noble successfully exploits accounting loopholes."
Noble's chief executive has taken exception to that description.
"Enron didn't go bankrupt and the people involved didn't go to jail because they were compliant with accounting rules," Yusuf Alireza, Noble's CEO, said in a call with analysts, according to a Financial Times report. "They want to jail and the company went bankrupt because they were committing fraud."
Iceberg's original report alleged that the Singapore-listed commodities trader's accounting treatments were "unusual," result in "fabricated" profit and "intentionally misleads credit agencies and investors."
Noble has consistently and vehemently denied the allegations and has taken multiple steps to improve its transparency to investors, including commissioning the PwC report. The trading company also claimed it had identified Iceberg as Arnaud Vagner, a disgruntled ex-employee it fired in 2013; the company filed a lawsuit against Vagner in Hong Kong, alleging "conspiracy to injure." Iceberg has previously refused to confirm or deny whether Vagner is a principal.
But other analysts and short-sellers jumped on the bandwagon, including a salvo from flamboyant short-seller Muddy Waters, although several analysts said there was nothing in that report that differed substantially from the Iceberg allegations.
Muddy Waters alleged Noble used "substance-less accounting" and that the financials of the deal to buy and sell Indonesian firm PT ALH were manipulated; at the time, Noble said "we categorically reject the unfounded allegations."
Clarification: This article has been updated since first published to include details of PwC's analysis of Noble's accounting.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter