Hogsback seeks financial advice from The Man in the Moon

ONCE upon a time, the Man in the Moon visited Hogsback and told him that Noble Group, the big Asian investor in Australia’s coal industry, was producing questionable financial accounts.

Staff Reporter

After sobering up The Hog could only remember two things about the remarkable visit from the mythical character; was The Man in the Moon telling the truth about Noble, and who is the Man in the Moon.

At this point in today’s fairy tale the story diverges because it seems that some people in the financial community believe in fictional characters invented to amuse children, while others sense a bit of nonsense at work.

In a way, it’s a variation of the question about a series of bad things happening – are they the result of a cock-up, or conspiracy.

In most cases the correct answer is cock-up, but in the Noble case it is highly likely that a conspiracy is the correct answer because we’ve all seen similar anonymous attacks on the financial credibility of companies involved with coal.

Amazingly, however, the money men who control financial markets do not appear to be aware of what’s been happening in Australia’s coal industry where crusaders against coal have forged letters and filed them at the stock exchange, written questionable assessments about “unburnable” coal and attacked the financial standing of everyone associated with coal.

What happened a few days ago is that an anonymous financial report about Noble was posted on a website claiming that the big commodities trader used questionable accounting practices to fabricate profits.

Some people, who are obviously so buried in financial matters that they totally lack an awareness of the wider world, sold Noble shares on the strength of the anonymous report, the Singapore Stock Exchange said it was investigating, and Noble flatly denied anything wrong.

What no one seems to have done is go to the source of the 17-page report and ask a few blindingly obvious questions such as: who wrote it, and why?

It is when those questions are asked that the wheels drop off the attack on Noble, and it becomes obvious that the report is nothing more than a variation of the dirty tricks campaign being run by anti-coal activists against the mining industry.

The fact that the document was anonymous must have been a give-away to anyone with half a brain and might just as well have been signed by the Man in the Moon.

The fact that the organisation distributing the document, a research firm that no-one in the business community had ever heard of must have rung more bells.

Not so, it seems, all that the financial types who spend their lives worrying about share prices did was react to the document and wonder whether it was part of a short-selling attack rather than question what lay behind it.

The short-selling view is partly understandable because driving down the value of a company’s shares in order to buy in cheaply is an old trick, but it has never been tried in Asia before using an anonymous document.

The Hog has a different view. He reckons there is more of a story in the people behind the report, a groupd called Iceberg Research, than there is in Noble’s financial details – and a few other observers of what is nothing more than an elaborate con trick are starting to sniff along the same trail.

CNBC, the US business broadcaster, was the first of the big name media groups to do what The Hog has been doing, looking for the source of the report rather than worry about anonymous claims.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore is also closing in on the author and the distribution channel, Iceberg Research, saying that it was reviewing the claims and would take appropriate action if there are breaches of the law.

That comment from the Singapore authorities about possible law-breaking is a significant variation on the initial reaction which was to probe Noble’s accounts.

One of the clues that everything associated with the Iceberg report into Noble is a fabrication lies in a subtle clue picked up by CNBC which emailed the research firm and asked for a reaction to the regulator’s scrutiny.

What it got in response was a claim that Iceberg’s anonymous analyst only used information in the public domain, but the reply also switched between “I” and “we”, a variation which raises the question about whether there is a team of researchers behind the document, or a team of activists.

The chance of their being a team of people researching Noble for no financial gain, as claimed by Iceberg, falls into the highly unlikely category.

The chance of their being a team of anti-coal activists behind the document because of their belief that all coal mines should be closed is far more likely.

Sometime in the next few days the authors of the Iceberg report will be outed because as CNBC points out someone owns the Iceberg domain name (that can’t be anonymous), and there needs to be a physical address as well as credit card details.

The hunt is on. Not for what’s in Noble’s accounts, but who the anonymous critics are.