LONDON Brazilian-Swiss bank Safra and a Chinese bank are among the three bidders for Generali SpA's (GASI.MI) Swiss private bank, BSI, in a deal worth 2 billion euros ($2.66 billion) that could help the Italian insurer shore up capital levels, two people familiar with the situation said on Friday.
The Italian insurer, led by new CEO Mario Greco, aims to raise 4 billion euros ($5.3 billion) from asset sales to meet new industry rules on capital buffers.
Safra, a Chinese bank and a European consortium made up of a bank and private equity firm have made non-binding offers and are now reviewing BSI's accounts, one of the sources said.
One of the people said the Chinese bidder was Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) ICBCA.UL.
"We see a lot of interest, but we are also aware it is a tough sale," said one of the people, who declined to be named because the talks are private.
"It is difficult to predict how the process will evolve when you have interested parties from distant regions who do not necessarily have expertise in private banking."
Safra and Generali were not immediately available for comment.
Europe's third-largest insurer bought BSI just before the financial crisis and has been trying to sell it for more than two years.
Price had so far been the main sticking point since potential buyers believed BSI was worth less than its book value of 2.3 billion Swiss francs ($2.46 billion, 2 billion euros), two people working for possible suitors said.
Emerging country players are showing a growing appetite for wealth management assets as their well-off clients seek a "safe haven" for their money in Western countries, especially in places such as Switzerland and Luxembourg, one of the people said.
Japanese firms Mizuho Bank Ltd MZFGB.UL and Sumitomo Corp (8053.T), a Chinese private equity fund and Middle Eastern players in Qatar and Abu Dhabi have also shown interest in BSI, but have not made offers so far, one of the sources said.
Safra already paid 1.04 billion Swiss francs ($1.07 billion)to take control of its Swiss rival, Sarasin, last year, beating Julius Baer BAER.VX, Switzerland's third-largest listed bank.
The Qatar Royal family teamed up with Luxembourg to buy bailed-out Dexia SA's (DEXI.BR) private banking arm for 730 million euros ($950 million) in 2011.
PRIVATE EQUITY INTEREST
Swiss rivals UBS UBSN.VX, Julius Baer, Credit Suisse MLPN.P and Union Bancaire Privee (UBP) have not expressed interest.
Rising costs and falling revenues are also driving a much-needed consolidation in the private banking industry.
But capital shortfall in the financial sector and a clamp down on tax evasion have long been standing in the way of much-need consolidation.
Smaller Swiss private banks are suffering from lower fees as their clients sit on safer assets, as well as higher costs from investments in technology needed to comply with new capital, risk, and compliance rules.
Julius Baer agreed to pay 860 million Swiss francs ($882 million) for loss-making Bank of America's (BAC.N) non-U.S. wealth management assets because the deal helped it boost its assets managed by 40 percent.
Bankers predict more is to come, especially in countries like Switzerland which host over 300 private banks.
This could translate into opportunities for private equity firms looking for bargains, as these firms have no capital constraints and money to invest, bankers said.
But regulators, concerned over funds' short term investment horizon, tend to oblige them to team up with an industry player to ensure capital needs will be plugged in the long-term.
Private equity firms including Carlyle (CG.O), KKR (KKR.N), Apollo, Apax and Blackstone (BX.N) are expected to be more active in that space and could even join the race for BSI, provided they found the right horse, two people familiar with the situation said.
(Reporting by Sophie Sassard; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)