* PICC Group to offer 6.9 bln new shares, or 16.7 pct stake
* IPO would be biggest in Hong Kong since AIA in 2010
* Roadshow due to start Nov. 22, pricing seen on Nov. 29
By Elzio Barreto and Fiona Lau
HONG KONG, Nov 15 China's PICC Group is in talks with American International Group Inc and others to become cornerstone investors for its planned listing worth up to $4 billion, in what will be Hong Kong's biggest IPO in two years.
State-owned insurer PICC started meeting institutional investors in Hong Kong on Thursday to gauge demand for the initial public offering, braving a slump this year in equity deals.
People's Insurance Company of China Group (PICC), one of the country's largest insurers, is also holding discussions with French reinsurer Scor, China Life Insurance Co Ltd and Chinese state utility State Grid Corp among others for cornerstone stakes, Thomson Reuters publication IFR reported, citing sources.
About 50 percent of the IPO is covered by commitments from cornerstone investors, including financial institutions, Chinese corporates and other strategic investors, sources with direct knowledge of the plans said.
Cornerstone investments in IPOs, unique to Asia, aim to bolster confidence in an offer with commitments by established investors and institutions to buy large, fixed stakes that they agree not to sell until the end of an established lock-up period.
PICC will offer 6.9 billion new shares in the IPO, equivalent to a 16.7 percent stake in the enlarged company, said a source with direct knowledge of the plans who was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter and declined to be named.
The IPO values the company between $20.8 billion and $30.5 billion, or at 2-2.5 times the 2013 price to book value and at a 2013 price to earnings ratio of 10.5-15, IFR said, citing pre-deal research reports.
Asian insurers on average trade at 15.9 times forward price to earnings, Thomson Reuters data shows.
PICC's planned IPO comes at a time when issuance in Hong Kong has plunged more than 80 percent so far this year, with volumes likely to shrink to their lowest since 2008 as investors shun new deals due to volatility caused by Europe's debt troubles.
"It is definitely not the best time to come to market, but capital has been a pressing issue for the group for some time," said Stanley Tsai, an insurance analyst in Hong Kong. "The group will need capital urgently to support its growth ambitions, particularly on the life side."
"The company will have to price the IPO at a considerable discount to peers in order to generate enough interest from institutional investors," he added.
LARGE CLIENT BASE
The IPO would be the biggest in Hong Kong since the $20.5 billion listing of AIA Group Ltd in October 2010.
The company will start taking orders from investors during a roadshow due to start on Nov. 22, with pricing of the IPO expected on Nov. 29, the source said.
China Life and State Grid did not return e-mail or phone requests for comment on the PICC deal, while Scor could not be reached for comment, IFR said. AIG's Hong Kong spokesman had no immediate comment.
PICC, the biggest property and casualty insurer in China and the fifth-largest life and health insurer, had planned to go public in a dual Shanghai and Hong Kong offering worth up to $6 billion.
It decided to move ahead with a Hong Kong listing first after the Shanghai portion of the deal failed to gain approval from Chinese regulators, who are concerned about weak stock market conditions on the mainland.
Founded in 1949, PICC is China's first nationwide insurer and has 2.42 million institutional insurance clients and about 130 million individual insurance customers, exceeding the entire population of Japan.
The company is controlled by China's Ministry of Finance, with an 88.7 percent stake, while the National Social Security Fund holds the remaining 11.3 percent.
PICC's revenue grew at an average annual rate of 22.5 percent from 2009 to 2011, reaching 236.3 billion yuan ($37.96 billion) in 2011 and 136.2 billion yuan in the six months ended in June 2012, according to its preliminary prospectus.
The company posted net profits of 7.9 billion yuan in 2011 and 7.14 billion yuan in the six months to June.
PICC hired a record 17 banks to help underwrite the IPO. The company is the parent of China's largest property insurer, Hong Kong-listed PICC Property & Casualty Co.
China International Capital Corp (CICC), Credit Suisse Group AG, Goldman Sachs Group Inc and HSBC Holdings Plc won mandates as sponsors of the deal. The list of banks also acting as bookrunners includes Morgan Stanley and UBS AG, as well Chinese firms such as ABC International and BOC International.