April 12, 2018 / 2:17 AM / 11 days ago

CORRECTED-BREAKINGVIEWS-Time is right for Asia's richest banker to pounce

(Corrects third paragraph to clarify detail and source of Kotak statement. The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

By Una Galani

MUMBAI, April 13 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Uday Kotak has a rare opportunity to scale up. Asia’s richest banker has long had an eye on Axis Bank. Now, a leadership void could now make it easier to forge a union with his own Kotak Mahindra to create a $54 billion Indian banking giant. A deal would allow the tycoon to lead consolidation and help him meet new ownership limits without selling shares.

The $20 billion Axis is one of the few Indian banks without a dominant investor. It needs a new boss following Shikha Sharma’s surprise decision this week to cut short her tenure, having led the bank since 2009.

A year ago Kotak told the Times of India his board would evaluate buying a stake in Axis if it was offered for sale. The market capitalisations of the pair have diverged since, with Kotak Mahindra shares running well ahead. Axis has twice the assets but also more than twice the gross bad loans, as a proportion of total lending. This ratio has risen to 5.3 percent after the regulator forced it to recognise more. The upside is that there unlikely to be many more skeletons in the closet.

The top prize is a chance to be an industry leader, rapidly growing branches, deposits and credit card customers. It would also help Kotak, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $11.4 billion, reduce his shareholding to meet regulatory requirements.

An all-share deal at the current values would give Kotak Mahindra around 60 percent of the enlarged entity, of which the tycoon would own 18 percent. That is below the 20 percent threshold he must hit by December 2018. In reality, Axis shareholders would probably be offered a premium, meaning slightly lower stakes for Kotak and his fellow Kotak Mahindra shareholders in the combined entity.

Kotak believes consolidation is inevitable, so getting larger will ensure the bank is a survivor. Its richly valued shares trade on around 3.7 times forward book value, almost double that of Axis. That puts it in a strong position to buy without diluting its own shareholders too much. The tycoon could also take a look at the $29 billion ICICI Bank, whose boss is struggling to contain the fallout of an alleged loans scandal. There might never be as good a time to buy a large bank as now.

On Twitter twitter.com/ugalani

CONTEXT NEWS

- Axis Bank said on April 9 that Chief Executive Shikha Sharma would step down at the end of 2018. Sharma has been CEO since 2009.

- The Times of India and the Economic Times have previously reported that the Reserve Bank of India asked the board to reconsider Sharma’s three-year reappointment, citing concerns over asset quality, among other reasons.

- Axis shares fell 1.2 percent on April 11, to 540 rupees ($8.26).

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Editing by Quentin Webb and Sharon Lam

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