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UBS in talks to buy majority stake in China securities joint venture

[HONG KONG] UBS Group AG is in discussions to acquire a majority stake in its Chinese securities joint venture, chief executive officer Sergio Ermotti said, as global banks rush to take advantage of Beijing's pledge to further open its financial markets.

UBS has started talks with its local partners on taking a 51 per cent stake in the venture, Mr Ermotti said in an interview in Shanghai on Monday with Bloomberg Television's Tom Mackenzie.

He also said UBS is ahead of its plan to double headcount in China over a five year period, saying the Zurich-based bank may have 1,200 staff in China by the end of this year.

"So we are in line with our plans to grow our business, regardless of the stake," Mr Ermotti said. "But of course if we can have a more rounded financial participation in our business here, we do welcome that," he added. He said the discussions on a 51 per cent stake could be concluded in "a matter of months".

Other global securities giants such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc have already signalled a desire to take majority stakes in their Chinese ventures, following the government's announcement in November it would relax foreign ownership restrictions. China said it plans initially to allow 51 per cent stakes before abolishing the cap completely after another three years.

The Swiss bank announced in early 2016 it planed to add about 600 people in China across wealth management, investment banking, equities, fixed income and asset management businesses over a five-year period.

It's the first time UBS has confirmed talks on taking a majority stake in its China venture. Before the government announcement, UBS had been working on a plan to boost its stake in its local venture to 49 per cent, up from 25 per cent at present.

The four Chinese companies in the venture are Beijing Guoxiang Asset Management Co, China Guodian Capital, COFCO Group and a Guangdong transport company.  Goldman Sachs has quietly been laying the groundwork for taking control of its onshore securities business in China, holding discussions with its local partner Fang Fenglei, people familiar with the matter said in November.

Morgan Stanley has already raised its stake in its local securities joint venture to 49 per cent from one third, and aims to hold a majority once China gives details on how the rule change will be implemented.

However, Mr Ermotti noted that a majority stake for UBS would be less significant because it already has management control over the venture.

"Honestly, strategically speaking it doesn't really change at lot because we have been in full control from the managerial standpoint" in China, he said.