Generali says won't sell BSI if price not right

MILAN/LONDON Thu Aug 1, 2013 10:40am EDT

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MILAN/LONDON (Reuters) - Italian insurer Generali SpA (GASI.MI) is still looking for buyers for its Swiss private banking business BSI, but won't sell if the price isn't right, company executives said on Thursday.

The sale of BSI, which has an estimated book value of 2.3 billion Swiss francs ($2.5 billion), is important for Generali as the proceeds would help it shore up its capital and cut debt.

Yet bankers closely following the sale have said BSI's sale stalled months ago because the parties could not agree on pricing, adding Generali is expected to come back to the negotiating table with lower expectations in coming months.

"We continue conversations with potential bidders, we are not a distressed seller of an asset," Chief Financial Officer Alberto Minali told analysts.

"We will analyze the offers when they come and if we think the price does not match what we consider to be the right price, we won't sell it," Minali said, without giving a figure.

Minali was speaking after Europe's third-largest insurer after Allianz (ALVG.DE) and AXA (AXAF.PA) reported a 28 percent rise in first-half net profit to 1.08 billion euros ($1.4 billion), thanks to a strong performance in non-life.

The result, which Generali called its best half-year performance in the past five years, was in line with the average forecast in a Reuters poll of five analysts. Minali said BSI had contributed 82 million euros to the group's net profit.

The company said its operating result rose 5.3 percent to 2.4 billion euros, driven by a 25 percent increase at its property and casualty business. In the life segment, the operating result fell 7 percent to 1.5 billion euros, even as premiums grew 2.2 percent.

NON-CORE ASSETS

Generali is seeking to raise 4 billion euros from the sale of non-core assets to boost its capital and restore value under CEO Mario Greco, appointed a year ago.

His long-standing predecessor, Giovanni Perissinotto, was ousted after Mediobanca (MDBI.MI) and other key shareholders expressed disappointment with his record.

The company said in a slide presentation it had so far raised 2.3 billion euros from disposals.

Asked if Generali would give exclusivity to Portugal's Banco Espirito Santo (BES.LS), which said last month it was analyzing the possible acquisition of BSI, Minali declined comment.

A sector banker told Reuters that the family controlling BES, Portugal's second-largest listed bank, had had to fork out money for a capital increase in 2012 and may not be best positioned for a major acquisition.

BES said last month its study of BSI could take a couple of months. The banker said one solution for Generali could be to sell about 60 percent of BSI to the Portuguese lender and retain the rest.

Sources told Reuters in May that BSI, which they said Generali has been trying to sell for more than two years, had attracted bids below its estimated book value.

They said the frontrunning bidder at that point was a consortium of Spanish lender Bankinter (BKT.MC) and U.S. investment fund Apollo Global Management (APO.N). But Bankinter CFO Gloria Ortiz said on July 25 the bank was not interested in a Swiss banking purchase.

Analysts say Greco's target of reaching a Solvency I ratio, a key measure of financial strength, above 160 percent by 2015 depends to a large extent on the successful sale of BSI.

The ratio stood at 142 percent in mid-July and would rise to 147 percent when the recent sale of U.S. and Mexican businesses is taken into account, Generali said.

Greco, who has pushed through an extensive clean-up of Generali's balance sheet, said in the conference call the market for an asset like BSI was "complicated" but the insurer was determined not to let it go cheap.

(Additional reporting by Andrea Mandala; Editing by David Holmes)

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