(Recasts lead, adds source)
ROME/MILAN, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Unicredit is talking with a consortium comprising Fortress Investment Group and Italy’s Prelios on the sale of its bad loan unit Unicredit Credit Management Bank (UCCMB) and could soon enter exclusive talks.
“That’s the way we’re leaning,” CEO Federico Ghizzoni told reporters on the sidelines of an event, adding a decision could be taken on Thursday.
Fortress and Prelios are pitted against a group of investors led by U.S. private equity fund Lone Star after UniCredit drew up a shortlist of bidders last month.
The sale, which could yield Italy’s biggest bank by assets more than 600 million euros ($758.5 million), would be the country’s biggest distressed debt sale for several years.
“Ironing out the detail of the transaction is a complicated issue that is taking time,” a source close to the deal said, adding the bank was discussing with the consortium about the industrial plan for UCCMB.
The winner would buy both UCCMB’s business operations, or “platform”, and a bad loan portfolio worth more than 3 billion euros.
The unit for sale manages more than 40 billion euros of non-performing loans that belong to both UniCredit and to third parties. It has more than 700 employees and is based in the northern town of Verona.
Both UniCredit’s CEO and a top executive for Fortress have give assurances the sale would not impact employees, but unions are opposed to the transaction.
The sale is part of UniCredit’s plan to strengthen its balance sheet in light of the Europe-wide bank asset review, the results of which will be unveiled on Sunday.
In Italy non-performing loans rose to 173.9 billion euros in August, the highest level since the current statistical series began in 1998.
Banks, however, are finding it hard to shed bad loans as prices offered in many cases fall short of the book value of the assets, experts involved in some transactions said.
The completion of the euro zone stress tests could help unblock further bad loan deals, they said. (1 US dollar = 0.7910 euro) (Reporting by Alberto Sisto in Rome, with Gianluca Semeraro and Francesca Landini in Milan; Editing by David Holmes)