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VTB seeks Noble commodity traders to build ‘Premier League’ Asian team

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

VTB Bank, Russia's second-largest lender by assets, is hoping to lure oil traders from embattled commodities trader Noble Group as part of a broader push in the region, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

Noble Group has been at the sharp end of the commodity price collapse and has faced questions over its accounting and a sinking share price. The company's credit rating has been cut to junk amid concerns over its debt pile.

While shares of Singapore-listed Noble jumped on Monday after it said it will sell its U.S. energy unit to Calpine for $800 million plus working capital, they are still down 32 per cent this year.

"Noble guys in general are disgruntled," said a Singapore-based analyst familiar with the company. "Talent is being poached understandably because of the state of the stock price and bonuses are paid out in stock options."

In an e-mailed statement to CNBC, VTB Capital, the investment-banking arm of VTB, said it is "developing its global commodities business in line with our strategy and the company's overall plans to further strengthen its global reach."

It added: "Asia is one of the priority regions for us, so we are looking to expand our commodities business there in 2017 and strengthen our local team." VTB stopped short of saying whether it was in talks with Noble traders.

Noble Group said it doesn't comment on personnel matters.

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The hiring spree by the Russian bank comes against the backdrop of a retreat from some U.S. investment banks in the region amid fierce competition for deals and skinny margins. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have recently announced plans to trim staff in Asia.

"More broadly, the US and European banks are pulling back from Asia as some areas of investment banking are not seeing enough revenues to make the business sufficiently profitable," said David Marshall, senior analyst at CreditSights in Singapore.

"I am not sure that the Russian and Chinese would-be investment banks are really better placed to make better returns but they may be willing to attach greater importance to achieving strategic objectives - growing their international business- than to achieving profitability targets," Marshall said.

VTB Capital, appeared to be taking advantage of that pullback and positioning in Asia for the longer term.

"Imagine the Premier League is getting smaller and you're Man United," said a commodities strategist. "And you hear Real Madrid players are leaving - what are you going to do?"

A Financial Times cited VTB Bank Deputy Chairman and Chief Financial Officer, Herbert Moos, as saying the board was considering relocating its European headquarters to an alternative hub, such as Frankfurt, Paris or Vienna. VTB Capital is the investment banking arm of majority state-owned VTB Bank.

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