September 26, 2016 / 7:05 AM / 3 years ago

Vistra, Permira among final bidders for $800 million unit of Bank of East Asia: sources

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Bank of East Asia (0023.HK), under attack from activist investor Elliott Management, has received about five final bids from suitors including Vistra Group and buyout firm Permira for its share registry business that is valued at about $800 million, people familiar with the matter said.

A logo of the Bank of East Asia is displayed at a news conference in Hong Kong, China, in this February 15, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

Ping An Insurance Group of China (601318.SS) and Australia’s Link Market Services are the other suitors that have placed final bids for the business, called Tricor Holdings, the people added.

The deal, if successful, would mark the first major sale of any business by Bank of East Asia, which was established nearly a century ago. While several Hong Kong-based family-owned banks have sold out due to deteriorating market conditions, Bank of East Asia survived as an independent bank in a market that is dominated by HSBC (HSBA.L) and Standard Chartered plc (STAN.L).

A sale of Tricor could also help Bank of East Asia management placate some shareholders and win their support in the battle against Elliott, which has called for a sale of the bank itself.

Like several other financial institutions Bank of East Asia has been hit by regulatory challenges and a slowdown in the China and Hong Kong economies.

The bank posted a 37 percent drop in half-yearly profit last month, hit by a surge in loan impairment losses. It has been looking to sharply cut its operational costs and retreat from non-core businesses to shore up profitability.

Hedge fund Elliott, which owns 7 percent of Bank of East Asia and has been critical of its performance, has been agitating for change and started legal proceedings against the bank in July over a share issue. Bank of East Asia has rejected Elliott’s demand that the bank be put up for sale.

The Hong Kong bank announced plans to review its 75.6 percent holding in Tricor in February. Hong Kong port operator NWS Holdings Ltd, backed by billionaire Cheng Yu-tung, owns the remaining stake and is also considering selling its holding.

Final bids for the business, that generated about $55 million in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization, were due last week.

Vistra and Permira are the frontrunners for Tricor, one of the people said.

Bank of East Asia, Ping An, Link and Permira declined to comment. Baring Asia Private Equity, which owns Vistra, also declined to comment. Sources declined to be identified as the discussions are confidential.

Bank of East Asia shares have jumped 12.3 percent this year, nearly double the gains of the benchmark Hong Kong .HSI index.

Reporting by Denny Thomas; Additional reporting by Prakash Chakravarti, Julie Zhu and Sumeet Chatterjee in HONG KONG and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman

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