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HONG KONG (Reuters) - UBS UBSN.VX, Singapore's Temasek Holdings [TEM.UL] and French bank BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA) are among half a dozen preliminary bidders to buy up to a 10 percent stake in state-owned Postal Savings Bank of China (PSBC) for at least $3 billion, people familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.
China's biggest bank by outlets, PSBC has about 40,000 branches, and a strategic partnership could help foreign banks sell insurance and banking products to China's vast population.
PSBC is preparing for an initial public offering next year, which could raise around $25 billion - the record for an IPO set last year by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (BABA.N) - China Daily reported in February. The pre-IPO stake sale is a stepping stone that would set a valuation benchmark for that offering.
The Chinese government is open to selling a bigger stake in PSBC and prefers to sell to strategic, rather than financial, investors, said one of the individuals, who couldn't be named as the process is confidential.
China has previously introduced strategic partners into its large state-owned banks before massive IPOs to bolster investor confidence and improve management best practice - though these have tended to turn into financial investments, with European, U.S. and Asian stakeholders selling up for a large profit.
The planned sale comes as Chinese bank shares have jumped by almost a quarter this year on strong demand from mainland investors, and despite China's slowing economy and the mounting bad debts of mainland banks. A Chinese banking sector sub-index .HSHFI is up 23 percent year-to-date.
BNP Paribas, Temasek and UBS declined to comment. Calls to PSBC's general office were not answered. Reuters could not ascertain the names of other preliminary bidders.
The stake could be sold slightly above PSBC's book value, which is at a slight discount to the price-to-book value of 1.26 of China's big banks, according to Thomson Reuters data.
PSBC, wholly-owned by China Post Group Corp, the state-owned postal service, has about 470 million clients, about equal to the combined populations of the United States and Russia. Its total assets topped 5.58 trillion yuan ($892 billion) at the end of 2013, according to its website. It is particularly strong in taking in deposits in rural areas.
Global financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs (GS.N), Bank of America (BAC.N), Citigroup (C.N) and UBS all acquired stakes in Chinese banks and insurers in the mid-2000s, but have since exited or reduced their stakes. While the relationships were profitable, involved some cooperation and helped Chinese lenders become some of the world's biggest banks, few products or strategic benefits emerged.
Goldman sold out of ICBC in 2013, ending a 7-year investment and earning more than $10 billion in gross proceeds, making a near four time return on its original stake. Bank of America exited its China Construction Bank Corp (CCB) (601939.SS) investment in the same year, reaping $16.4 billion after a series of sales - a return of more than five times its initial investment.
Preliminary bids for the PSBC stake were due last week, and the parties will undertake detailed due diligence before making final offers.
China International Capital Corp (CICC) and Morgan Stanley (MS.N) are arranging the pre-IPO sale, the sources said.
Reporting by Denny Thomas and Elzio Barreto; Additional reporting by Fiona Lau at IFR, Deena Yao in HONG KONG, Engen Tham in SHANGHAI and Saeed Azhar in SINGAPORE; Editing by Ian Geoghegan