A Noble Ending?

Today, we woke to the startling news that the captain of offshore stalwart Noble (NYSE: NE  ) has abandoned ship. His abrupt departure, with no stated reason for leaving, is akin to breaking up with someone with a sticky note.

The timing here is fairly interesting.

A "Bermudan" company named SeaDrill has muscled its way into the offshore business very quickly since its 2005 inception. At the helm is John Fredriksen, the same Norwegian billionaire behind tanker titan Frontline (NYSE: FRO  ) . This man knows how to build dominant companies through industry consolidation.

SeaDrill and Noble first crossed paths when Fredriksen and company managed to snap up Smedvig from right under Noble's nose. At the time, Noble was more than twice SeaDrill's size. That gap has narrowed considerably, as SeaDrill has aggressively levered up and grown its fleet through both acquisitions and new builds.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when SeaDrill dismissed rumors that it's looking to merge with Awilco Offshore and Noble. The company's chief executive proclaimed the rumor "nonsense." To be certain, rumors about SeaDrill's next move are nothing new. Noble, Pride International (NYSE: PDE  ) , and Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO  ) have all been deemed possible takeover targets. But a three-way deal is a fairly specific rumor, and it's worth bearing in mind that SeaDrill denied its interest in Smedvig until it had acquired enough shares to effect a takeover.

The departure of Mark Jackson, Noble's CEO and chairman, in such close proximity to this very public denial by SeaDrill is, as I said, fairly interesting. It's interesting enough that Noble shares have been bid up about 3% today. How often do you see that when a top executive unexpectedly resigns? The Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) and GlobalSantaFe (NYSE: GSF  ) merger is still fresh, and investors clearly still have consolidation on the brain.

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