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* Sberbank CEO comments sow confusion
* "Plan B" for French shareholder to buy VBI - sources
* Time pressing as repayment of state aid looms
By Michael Shields and Arno Schuetze
VIENNA/FRANKFURT, March 3 Oesterreichische
Volksbanken's OTVVp.VI divestment of its eastern European arm
is turning into a hard sell just when Austria's fourth-biggest
lender needs money to start repaying state aid.
Russian lender Sberbank SBER03.MM -- widely tipped as the
favourite to buy the Volksbank International (VBI) unit -- threw
a cat among the pigeons last week when Chief Executive German
Gref appeared to remove his bank from the race.
"We are not in talks about the Volksbank acquisition. The
information that came out was not quite accurate," Gref told
reporters in Moscow. [ID:nLDE71O25M]
He did not comment on an Austrian newspaper report that he
could instead be eyeing a stake in Volksbanken itself.
To help him make a decision, Gref can lean on the views of
former UniCredit (CRDI.MI) Chief Executive Alessandro Profumo,
who built the Italian bank into a power in central and eastern
Profumo confirmed to Reuters he is advising the Russian
lender but did not want to discuss specific projects.
Gref may just be being coy about VBI -- one source close to
the matter said the Russians were still gathering information
about the bank -- but VBI has certainly not attracted a feeding
frenzy since Volksbanken put its 51 percent stake up for sale in
France's Banque Populaire Caisse d'Epargne and Germany's DZ
Bank/WGZ Bank each own 24.5 percent of the unit, for which the
owners have been hoping to get at least 1.8 billion euros ($2.5
billion), or 1.5 times the bank's equity.
That is around three times what one potential bidder had
calculated VBI was worth, a source close to the bidder said.
"This is a tough time to be selling a bank," one executive
close to the transaction said.
Two sources close to the sale said a Chinese group had
expressed interest in VBI, although an adviser to one party
dismissed this as "mere wishful thinking".
A spokesman for Oesterreichische Volksbanken said he could
not comment on details of the VBI transaction but added: "We are
very satisfied with the current sale process."
Volksbanken is under pressure to raise money to start paying
back 1 billion euros in state aid it got during the financial
crisis, and is due to pay back 300 million euros of state
capital by the end of 2011. [ID:nLDE6B61NG].
The VBI sale has to proceed swiftly enough to ensure the
deal gets regulatory approval this year in the 10 emerging
European markets where VBI operates, sources have said.
Any buyer needs to be optimistic about prospects in Romania,
which accounted for 5.2 billion of VBI's 13.2 billion euros in
total banking assets at mid-2010.
It is less strong in other markets in the region where it
competes against UniCredit, Erste Group Bank (ERST.VI) and
Raiffeisen Bank International (RBIV.VI).
Volksbanken itself is controlled by regional cooperative
banks, with DZ Bank DGBGg.F and Raiffeisen also owning stakes.
With talk in the market that VBI may have to be broken up
and sold in pieces, two sources said a "plan B" scenario had
emerged in which France's Banque Populaire could buy out other
"They are in the comfortable position of being able to sit
on the sidelines and see how things develop," the source said.
(Additional reporting by Christian Gutlederer in Vienna and
Vladimir Soldatkin and Ekaterina Golubkova in Moscow; Editing by