UPDATE 1-Spain's Catalunya Banc sells property arm to U.S. funds

Wed Aug 7, 2013 1:22pm EDT

* Sells unit to Kennedy Wilson and Varde Partners

* Catalunya Banc has to shrink business after receiving aid

* Unit has 8.7 billion euros assets under management

MADRID, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Spain's nationalised Catalunya Banc said it had agreed to sell its property management unit to two U.S. investment funds, the first in a series of similar disposals planned by lenders trying to leave a real estate crash behind.

Real estate investment fund Kennedy Wilson and Varde Partners, a fund that specialises in distressed debt and property, have jointly bought the business, Catalunya Banc said on Wednesday, without disclosing a price.

Along with several other Spanish banks, the lender had to be bailed out by the state after the 2008 real estate crash, when its loans to developers turned sour.

Catalunya Banc, also known on Spain's streets as Catalunya Caixa, was one of the banks alongside Bankia that received part of a 41 billion euro ($55 billion) European rescue last year, to rebuild its capital.

It has to shrink its business as a condition of that aid. The bank said in a statement that shedding the real estate platform, which sells foreclosed housing and works to recover money from loans that are secured against property, will allow it to refocus on its retail business.

The unit has more than 8.7 billion euros of assets under management, Catalunya Banc said, adding that these included properties transferred to a government-backed "bad bank" known as Sareb at the end of last year.

The deal is due to close in the fourth quarter. Catalunya Banc itself is also likely to come up for auction again later this year, after a failed attempt to sell the bank a few months ago.

Catalunya Banc and other rescued lenders such as Bankia, which is also trying to sell its property management unit, retained the contract to manage the assets they transferred to Sareb.

This has added to the attractions of the property units to investors like Kennedy Wilson and Varde Partners, as selling Sareb properties earns commissions.

Many investors, including hedge funds interested in soured property, have been frustrated by the slow pace of real estate disposals in Spain so far.

Even after the government forced banks to take big writedowns on property assets last year, banks have been reluctant to part with real estate at knock-down prices.

But more assets like those of Catalunya Banc and Bankia are now on the block, with healthy lender Caixabank also seeking investors for a stake in its property management arm.

These types of businesses also usually give investors access to the staff and technology needed to service property assets.

Sales by Sareb are picking up, and the so-called bad bank closed its first property portfolio deal on Tuesday with U.S. investment firm H.I.G. Capital.

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