* Pair invested when shares had fallen to 10 cents
* 6.4 pct stake offloaded at 0.328 euros per share
* Fairfax's Watsa says no plans to sell more stock
* Govt says strategy remains unchanged on 14 pct stake
By Padraic Halpin and Laura Noonan
DUBLIN/LONDON, March 4 Two of Bank of Ireland's
largest shareholders, who helped keep it out of state
hands at the height of the euro zone debt crisis in 2011, more
than tripled their money when they sold part of their stake on
Wilbur Ross and Fairfax Financial sold a combined
6.4 percent stake at just below 0.33 euros per share.
Billionaire investor Ross and Fairfax boss Prem Watsa, who
owned almost 18 percent of the bank before the sale, were among
a group of North American investors who bought a 35 percent
stake only months after Ireland signed up to an EU/IMF bailout.
Fairfax said it did not plan any further reduction to its
stake in the country's biggest lender, while Ross could not be
reached for immediate comment.
The price represents a hefty increase on the 10 cents the
group of investors, which also included Kennedy Wilson, the
Capital Group and Fidelity Investments, paid for their holding.
"Bank of Ireland has been one of our most successful
investments," Watsa told Reuters in an interview.
"Because of the significant appreciation, we are rebalancing
our position. The position had become very significant (in terms
of our overall portfolio)."
"We remain strong supporters of (chief executive) Richie
Boucher and Bank of Ireland... Bank of Ireland will benefit from
the ongoing recovery of Ireland and we have no intention to sell
any more of our stake. We are long term investors."
Ross owned more than 2.9 billion Bank of Ireland shares, or
9.1 percent of the bank, before Tuesday's announcement. Fairfax
held 2.8 billion shares, or 8.7 percent.
GOVERNMENT STRATEGY UNCHANGED
Bank of Ireland shares fell 7 percent on Monday after its
full-year results, having risen by 25 percent to a high of 0.39
euros in the month before publication. Shares were down 9.4
percent at 0.33 euros by 1530 GMT on Tuesday.
The 14-percent state-owned bank said it returned to profit
in the first two months of the year and cut its full-year loss
by almost two thirds in 2013 thanks to improved margins and a
fall in the number of homeowners in arrears.
Fairfax has since gone on to invest in Greece, announcing an
increase in its stake in property company Eurobank Properties in
October, while Ross told Reuters last year that he was keen on
financial assets in Spain, another distressed euro zone market.
Deutsche Bank, the placing's bookrunner, said 2.1 billion
euros of shares were sold to institutional investors only and
that Ross and Fairfax had agreed not to sell any more shares for
Ireland's Davy Stockbrokers were also involved in the
The pair were the second and third-largest shareholders in
the bank behind the government, which also holds more than 99
percent of rival lenders Allied Irish Banks and
Ireland's Finance Minister Michael Noonan told Reuters in
December that while the government had no interest in running
banks in the long term, it was under no financial or political
pressure to sell.
"I'd be surprised to see the government announce imminent
plans to divest its residual Bank of Ireland equity stake,"
Merrion Stockbrokers analyst Ciaran Callaghan said.
"Given the (state's) strong cash buffers, the state is not
under any pressure to monetise its investment. I would expect
them to weigh up the market's reaction to the North American
disposal before forming any concrete plans."
A spokesman for the finance ministry on Tuesday said that
its strategy remained unchanged and the government would reduce
its shareholdings in the banks at the right time.