China's biggest bank signs great investment deal with Goldman Sachs-led group

China's biggest lender, state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, on Friday signed a US$3.78 billion (3 billion euros) investment deal with Goldman Sachs Group Inc., American Express Co. and Germany's Allianz AG. The deal, aimed at building "strategic partnerships" in banking, insurance and credit card businesses, will involve the purchase of newly issued shares in the Beijing-based bank, known as ICBC, the companies said in a statement. The statement did not provide a breakdown for the size of investment for each company or the stake each will own. It said the deal, signed at a ceremony in Beijing, is subject to regulatory approval.

The bank earlier had announced that the three companies planned to buy a combined 10 percent stake for more than US$3 billion (2.5 billion euros).

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that ICBC had agreed to sell the stake as planned, with Goldman Sachs and its private equity funds investing US$2.58 billion (2.11 billion euros) for about 7 percent of the bank. Allianz would pay US$1 billion (820 billion euros) for a 2.5 percent stake and American Express would invest US$200 million (163 million euros), it said, citing unnamed sources. ICBC, which like other Chinese banks has been plagued with lending scandals and mountains of bad debt, expects the cooperation with its foreign partners to help improve its governance and risk controls.

In a rare move, Goldman Sachs will appoint one member to ICBC's board, according to the Chinese version of the companies' statement.

"Today's announcement marks the beginning for ICBC's corporate governance reform and business development," ICBC's chairman, Jiang Jianqing, said in the statement.

Munich-based Allianz, Europe's largest insurer by premiums, will focus on building up joint insurance products and services, while American Express will focus on cooperation in consumer credit, it said.

Chinese regulators are encouraging foreign banks to take strategic stakes in the industry, both as a source of funding and to upgrade local bank services with foreign managerial and technical expertise as the industry prepares for the opening of local financial markets to full foreign competition late this year.

With more than 20,000 branches, ICBC is a giant in an industry dominated by huge banks. By the end of September, its deposits totaled 5.59 trillion yuan.

Like other major Chinese banks, ICBC is in the midst of a restructuring and preparing to sell its stock on the Hong Kong exchange, possibly later this year, aiming to boost its competitiveness.

ICBC recently announced the founding of a US$248 billion yuan (US$30.6 billion; euro25 billion) joint-stock company, equally owned by the Ministry of Finance and the government-owned Central Huijin Investment Co. In April, the government injected US$15 billion into the bank to help replenish its funds, while writing off 705 billion yuan (US$87.5 billion; euro71.41 billion) in bad loans.

The bank recently reported that its unaudited operating profit in 2005, before provisions for losses, grew six-fold to 90.2 billion yuan (US$11.2 billion; euro9 billion) and its capital adequacy ratio was 10.26 percent, similar to other big Chinese state banks.

Meanwhile, Citigroup's spokesman in Shanghai said he could not comment on reports that the State Council, or Cabinet, was due soon to announce a decision on its bid for a stake in Guangdong Development Bank. Staff at the Chinese bank also refused comment.

According to reports in the Chinese media, a consortium led by Citigroup bid nearly US$3 billion for a majority stake in the struggling mid-sized lender, based in the southern province of Guangdong. But it faces competition from other contenders, including France's Societe Generale SA.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Citigroup's offer would net it a stake of between 40 percent and 45 percent, with U.S. private equity firm Carlyle Group taking a 10 percent stake.

China usually limits investments by a single foreign institution in a state-run bank to less than 20 percent, with total foreign investment capped at 25 percent.

But the Guangzhou-based bank reportedly is being allowed to sell off a larger share of its equity than usual because of its urgent need for capital and its large burden of bad loans, reports the AP.


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