* Billionaire investor Ross joins consortium to buy EBS
* Source familiar with process says no decision made yet
* Ross says Ireland is near bottom of economic downturn
(Adds comments from Wilbur Ross)
By Padraic Halpin and Emily Chasan
DUBLIN/NEW YORK, Sept 15 (Reuters) - Billionaire American investor Wilbur Ross joined a consortium led by Dublin-based Cardinal Asset Management to bid for Irish building society EBS [EBSBS.UL], he said on Wednesday.
State-run EBS is in talks with three private equity groups and bancassurer Irish Life & Permanent IPM.I. Sources expect two preferred bidders to be chosen by the end of this month and a winner by the end of next. [ID:nLDE6891I5]
Ross said in an interview with Reuters that he believes it is a good time to invest in an Irish financial institution because the government has invested heavily in bolstering banks, austerity measures have been implemented without much disruption and the country could be near the bottom of its economic downturn.
“What the Irish government has done is to react very, very quickly,” Ross said, citing the creation of the National Association of Managed Assets, which has bought some troubled assets from Irish banks.
“We think because they moved so decisively and so quickly, chances are that Ireland will come out of it very quickly.”
Ross, who earlier this year took a stake in New Jersey lender Sun Bancorp SNBC.O and invested millions in British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Money, said earlier on Wednesday on CNBC Television that he wanted “to buy EBS and reinfuse capital into it.”
A source familiar with the deal said however that no winning bid had yet been selected.
“No decision has been taken yet. The process is ongoing,” the source, who declined to be named, said.
Officials at EBS were not immediately available for comment.
Sources have said Irish Life and Cardinal have emerged as the two front-runners in the bidding for the state-run building society, which needs to find 775 million euros ($1 billion) by the end of the year to shore up its capital base.
Private equity firm Carlyle Group is also a part of the Cardinal consortium, Ross said, noting he had worked before with Carlyle on a deal for Bank United [WMBUC.UL].
Selling EBS to a private investor would be a relief to Ireland which is injecting a combined 28 billion euros into two other state-controlled lenders: Anglo Irish Bank [ANGIB.UL] and Irish Nationwide Building Society [IRNBS.UL].
Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin and Emily Chasan in New York; Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins in Dublin; Editing by Andras Gergely, David Holmes, Phil Berlowitz $1=.7711 Euro