LISBON China's Minsheng Financial Holding, U.S. funds Apollo and Centerbridge and private equity firm Lone Star are leading attempts to buy Portugal's Novo Banco, which was carved out of Banco Espirito Santo (BES) in 2014, four sources told Reuters.
Minsheng has offered to buy a majority stake in Novo Banco, to be followed by an initial public offering of the remainder, while an Apollo-Centerbridge combination and Lone Star have also made bids for all of the bank, the sources said on Tuesday.
Portugal salvaged the "good bank" in a 4.9-billion-euro rescue of BES, which collapsed under the weight of debts of its founding family, and has said it hopes to decide on Novo Banco's sale by the end of 2016, ahead of an August 2017 deadline.
An earlier attempt to sell Novo Banco last year was scrapped because the bids made were considered too low by the government, but they have been improved this time round.
"The three bidders...ahead in the race, are Minsheng, Apollo/Centerbridge and Lone Star. These bidders have presented the greatest commitment, interest and the most robust proposals," one of the sources told Reuters.
Chinese companies have been actively buying assets, from infrastructure to banking, in Portugal since its 2010-13 debt crisis. The latest acquisition was by Fosun, which bought a 16.7 percent stake in Millennium bcp last month.
Apollo and Lone Star are also present in Portugal, the former holding two insurers it bought in 2015 and 2016, and the latter with four shopping malls acquired in 2015.
The source added that Portugal's largest and second-largest listed banks, Millennium bcp and Banco BPI, are not out of the race, but have shown less interest. In October, Treasury Secretary Ricardo Mourinho Felix told Reuters there were five potential buyers.[ID:nP4N17G020]
Another source said, however, that the sale process will only be completed once a winner is chosen and until that moment, the bidders can at any time improve their bids.
The areas in which there could be improvements is the amount of state guarantees demanded for potential future liabilities and the amounts of capital bidders are prepared to inject.
The ECB and European Commission also have to be consulted.
A spokesman at the Bank of Portugal would not comment on the sale process.
(Writing by Axel Bugge; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Alexander Smith)