IT'S not often that Hong Kong-based companies find a larger following in Singapore than at home. But that is exactly what happened to commodities giant Noble Group. Last May, after two years of indifferent volumes - despite doubling its earnings and with a turnover ranging between US$500,000 and $1 million a day - the company left the Hong Kong stock market for Singapore. Noble, which markets, processes and transports agricultural and industrial materials - especially steel - is now trading at a price-earnings multiple of 8.8 times, a far cry from the 2-3 times that greeted its shares in Hong Kong. Run by Englishman Richard Elman, who owns 45.7 per cent, Noble debuted in Singapore on March 14 at 88 US cents. It had risen 10.8 per cent by the end of the day. It is now in the 85-86 cents range, admirable, says Mr Elman, considering the republic's markets have received a hammering recently. Those trading prices are still in stark contrast to the peak 25 cents the shares reached in Hong Kong - and the price at which Noble bought back its shares before privatising. 'We had no problems privatising because we did so at the highest price the shares ever traded, and we also gave our investors the option of holding on to the stock,' Mr Elman said. Six per cent of the investors did hang on, and are still owners of the Singapore-listed outfit. The group's relatively high trading prices are also surprising considering it posted a mere 2 per cent rise in earnings last week for 1996 - although that was after opening eight new offices and lifting staff numbers 30 per cent. Net profit rose to S$20.26 million (about HK$108.80 million) from $19.84 million the previous year, still higher than other commodities groups, Mr Elman said. So what is the secret to its trading and business success? Publicity helps. The group went on a ten-city roadshow before its Singapore listing, exciting institutional buying interest that was impossible in property and banking-crazy Hong Kong. 'We have a higher institutional following in Singapore than we ever had in Hong Kong,' Mr Elman said. 'About 32 per cent of our shares are held by over 200 institutions, of which at least 9 per cent are from Hong Kong.' The group's market capitalisation before it delisted from Hong Kong was double the level at which it made its debut in 1994. But at US$83 million, it was still below the $100 million threshold that captures most insitutional investors' interest. In Singapore, Noble has reached a $211 million capitalisation. Its mainland connection is also a plus. Noble was set up ten years ago, just as China, now the world's largest crude steel producer, began opening up and looking for iron ore for its steel mills. The group located the ore, shipped it to China, and then sold it to final users such as Japan and South Korea. As well as assuring the group of raising funds, the Singapore listing has also helped expand the new, but complementary, areas it has recently moved into. Last December, Noble bought the coal and coke division of Phibro from Salomon Inc, parent of Salomon Brothers. The group also moved into the fertilizer business early last year, selling mainly to China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia. In January this year the group made its first major foray outside Asia when it opened an office in the US to source fertilizers and coal. 'We're also looking into opening an office in South Africa,' Mr Elman said. 'You could say that as China has developed its Asian business, we have too. And as China's reach grows outside Asia, ours has too.'