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OCBC in talks to sell United Engineers

[SINGAPORE] OCBC Bank is talking to Thai billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi to sell its stake in United Engineers Ltd (UEL), according to sources.

UEL yesterday jumped 17 Singapore cents or 7.4 per cent to S$2.46 before trading in the counter was suspended at 11.13am.

After market close, OCBC and its 87 per cent insurer unit Great Eastern Holdings issued a statement saying "they have been approached by a party in connection with a possible transaction relating to their combined stakes in UEL and WBL Corporation which may or may not lead to an offer for the shares of UEL and WBL".

Last year, UEL bought WBL in the largest local takeover which valued WBL at S$1.25 billion.

OCBC, Great Eastern Holdings (GEH) plus the bank's founding family shareholder, the Lee group own a combined 34 per cent in UEL.

"Discussions are preliminary at this stage and shareholders of OCBC Bank and GEH are advised that there is no certainty that any transaction or agreements will be entered into pursuant to these discussions," the statement said.

UEL also released a statement which said that it understands the talks are at a preliminary stage. It added that it is "in advanced stages of discussions regarding the sale of a non-core business" with no certainty that a deal may be struck. "It's very, very early days . . . they approached us . . . before the rights issue," said a source who confirmed that the party is Mr Charoen.

Morgan Stanley is believed to be acting on behalf of Mr Charoen, the richest man in Thailand and who has been on a buying spree in the last couple of years.

The proposed UEL sale is no surprise given that OCBC had just completed its S$6.2 billion acquisition of Hong Kong's Wing Hang Bank and launched on Monday a S$3.3 billion rights issue to pay for the deal.

OCBC's senior executives had stressed that the bank's capital - with the incoming proceeds from the fully underwritten rights issue - will be at prudent levels and does not need to rely on sales of non-core assets to boost it further.

Samuel Tsien, OCBC chief executive had said on Monday that it will divest its non-core assets, mainly in Singapore and Malaysia with perhaps some from Wing Hang. He added that the bank is not in a hurry and sales will only take place when "we can achieve the right value".

Observers noted that if the UEL sale does transpire, it will help boost the bank's capital, but more is needed and they expect further divestments from OCBC's vast property interests which includes a hotel and shopping mall in Orchard Road worth S$618 million.

According to UEL's annual report, the participating fund of GEH owns 12.6 per cent. It's not clear how much OCBC owns, but it's believed to be about 4 per cent. Based on UEL's market value of S$1.5 billion on Wednesday, the sale might reap S$60 million.

GEH could pay a special dividend from the sale and one analyst estimated that it may add S$160-S$190 million to OCBC's coffers.

"We estimate that OCBC's sale of its UEL stake will boost its core tier 1 ratio by only 10-11 basis points though it is the first progressive step towards raising its capital buffer," said Kenneth Ng, CIMB bank analyst. "We maintain our add rating and look forward to further sales of non-core assets," he said.

OCBC is estimated to require an additional S$3 billion of capital come December 2018 to comply with the new Basel III capital requirements.

According to Bloomberg, companies backed by Mr Charoen have announced US$4.5 billion of acquisitions this year.

GEH, OCBC Bank and Lee Rubber in 2012 sold stakes in Asia Pacific Breweries and Fraser and Neave to Mr Charoen for S$3.2 billion.

OCBC closed yesterday up six Singapore cents to S$10.44.