| HONG KONG
HONG KONG Hong Kong businessman Richard Li, younger son of Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, is nearing a deal to buy ING's ING.AS Hong Kong and Thailand business for over $2 billion, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Thursday.
A deal could be announced as early as Friday, but could also be delayed to next week, the sources said. ING and Richard Li's Pacific Century Group have entered the final round of negotiations, they added.
ING is divesting assets across the world to help repay the 10 billion euro ($13.1 billion) state bailout it received during the 2008 financial crisis.
Last week, the Dutch financial company announced the sale of its Malaysian insurance business to AIA Group Ltd (1299.HK) for $1.73 billion in cash, its first deal in a nine-month drive to sell off its Asian insurance and investment management assets.
If the deal with Richard Li is successful, ING would raise a total of about $3.7 billion from the sale of the three units, with divestment of its much bigger Japan and South Korean operations still pending.
"It seems to be going well," Cor Kluis, an analyst at Rabobank, said.
Kluis said he had expected the Hong Kong and Thai businesses to be sold for about 1.4 billion euros ($1.84 billion) and for the Asian insurance and investment assets to raise 6.1 billion euros in total.
A spokesman for Richard Li declined to comment. ING declined to comment. The sources did not want to be identified as the information is not public yet.
Negotiations to sell ING's Japan and South Korean operations have been dragging on and it was not immediately clear when the sale of those two units would be announced.
ING launched the sale of its Asian insurance and asset management operations in March and had planned to find a single buyer for the insurance units, raising more than $7 billion.
With no single suitor emerging, ING decided to break up the auction along different geographies.
Richard Li, 45, previously ran an insurance business in Hong Kong, which he sold to Dutch and Belgian financial services firm Fortis in 2007.
Li was a surprise bidder for ING's insurance operations, which had attracted interest from global insurers including Metlife Inc (MET.N) and Manulife Financial Corp (MFC.TO).
If successful, Li's purchase of the assets would shake up the sector less than if they had gone to another insurer.
"Richard Li coming in and doing this doesn't really change the market because there's no consolidation. It's just a new owner for the ING assets," said Barclays Asia insurance analyst Mark Kellock.
Li has two key lieutenants advising him on his insurance and financial services business - Martina Chung Kit Hung, a former AIA employee, and Alvin Chooi, an ex-Temasek Holdings TEM.UL insurance specialist - separate sources told Reuters.
Li, who runs phone, pay-television and Internet company PCCW Ltd (0008.HK), also hired HSBC (HSBA.L) to advise on the deal.
In May, Li Ka-shing named elder son Victor Li his formal successor but also pledged to continue to back Richard's ventures.
ING hired Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and JP Morgan (JPM.N) to advise on the divestment.
($1 = 0.7621 euros)
(Reporting by Denny Thomas and Clare Baldwin; Additional reporting by Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Helen Massy-Beresford)