South Korea to sell largest banking group in three pieces

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea has decided to split the assets of Woori Finance Holdings into three groups in its fourth bid to sell its majority stake in the nation's largest banking group, regulators said on Wednesday.

The Financial Services Commission (FSC) said the sell off would begin with two regional banks, followed by the group's brokerage unit and related affiliates, and finally the flagship Woori Bank.

The move follows three previous attempts to sell the assets in one go, all of which failed for lack of interest.

If the government's 57 per cent stake in the holding firm is sold in a single deal, it would fetch some 4.5 trillion won (S$5 billion), based on Tuesday's closing share price.

"This is aimed at returning the group to the market at the earliest possible date", FSC Chairman Shin Je Yoon told journalists.

Any further delay would only hurt the banking giant's competitiveness and value, he said.

"The government alone can't strike this deal. We ask for support from the National Assembly and the press," Mr Shin added.

A Korean law requiring a financial holding firm bidding for another such company to buy at least 95 per cent of its target has made potential buyers like KB Financial Group shy away.

Sour public sentiment against private equity firms and foreign capital also deterred potential buyers from making a bid.

Woori Finance was established in 2001 as a holding company after the government bailed out five financial companies in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

State-run Korea Deposit Insurance Corp. once owned 100 per cent of Woori but gradually reduced its stake to 57 per cent through a stock-market listing and four after-hour block trades.

It is the nation's largest banking group with 25.7 trillion won in assets as of end-2012.