Foreign bidders are hoping to buy as much as half of Guangdong Development Bank in a deal that could mark the first time China has offered control of a state-owned bank.
Chinese officials last week began reviewing proposals to sell a major part of Guangdong Development Bank, according to a person involved in the bidding. He said that while it is doubtful the Chinese government is ready to sell majority ownership to foreigners, officials appear inclined to allow them to hold combined stakes in the bank as large as 25 to 50 percent.
There might be sales of blocks of shares that "would be enough to give foreign shareholders control of the bank," said the person knowledgeable about the initial bidding process.
One foreign investor, Newbridge Capital Ltd., has gained effective control of a Chinese bank, Shenzhen Development Bank. But in that case, Chinese authorities did not offer foreigners control of the bank, which wasn't considered to be owned by the state. Newbridge became the largest shareholder, with 17.89 percent of the publicly listed bank, by acquiring the shares owned by four entities belonging to the Shenzhen government.
The bidding for Guangdong Development Bank offers a sign Beijing could be considering letting foreign investors assume larger stakes in Chinese financial institutions than has been allowed until now. Such a move might help boost interest in Chinese banks that have had trouble drawing overseas investors.
One Hong Kong banking analyst said he thinks that Guangdong Development Bank has dangled the prospect of foreigners taking a combined stake of up to 50 percent to entice bidders and that the Chinese bank doesn't necessarily have approval from authorities to go ahead.
Another person knowledgeable about the situation said Guangdong Development Bank hasn't explicitly said it would be prepared to sell majority ownership to foreigners. At this point, the bank is merely making suggestions to that effect and the whole arrangement is "very fluid," that person said.
Any such deal wouldn't necessarily violate Chinese banking rules.
Beijing limits a single foreign investor to 20 percent ownership in a Chinese bank but permits combined investments of larger than 25 percent, according to the China Banking Regulatory Commission. However, if the combined foreign stake exceeds 25 percent in an unlisted Chinese bank, then that bank is treated like a foreign bank, restricting its ability to lend and take deposits in yuan, China's currency.
Guangdong Development Bank is just the latest in a series of Chinese banks drawing interest from global financial institutions. The person involved in the bidding said about "five to 10 companies" are extending bids for the bank, based in China's prosperous southern province of Guangdong.
Bankers expect the government to make a decision by the end of this year.
Beijing has been loosening controls as it seeks to lure foreign buyers to help revamp management at its banks. Many of China's banks have vast branch networks, but they have run into substantial problems with bad loans.
Last year, HSBC Holdings PLC acquired the maximum permitted 19.9 percent for a single investor in Shanghai-based Bank of Communications, with an agreement that its stake could double after 2008, if regulations change.
Guangdong Development Bank has been trying to restructure after a near-collapse in the 1990s. At the end of 2004, it had total assets of $41.16 billion. After the bank wrote off some of its bad debts, profit more than tripled last year to $395 million, according to its Web site.
Ai Liqun, the spokeswoman for Guangdong Development Bank, confirmed the bank is restructuring but said details are "highly confidential right now."
Officials at the People's Bank of China, the nation's central bank, could not be reached for comment.
An official at Shenzhen-based Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. said the company had earlier held "merger" talks with Guangdong Development Bank, but the current status of those is unclear, he said.
Ellen Zhu contributed to this report.