SEOUL (Reuters) – State-owned Korea Development Bank (KDB) confirmed on Tuesday it was in talks with Lehman Brothers over a possible joint investment in the U.S. bank with other Korean banks, sending local banking shares lower.
Lehman, which has more than $60 billion of mortgage and mortgage security exposure, is under pressure to raise capital ahead of its results announcement this month as Wall Street firms continue to reel from the credit crunch.
“Our CEO said talks are ongoing and cannot disclose the content of them,” said KDB spokesman Sung Joo-young.
Buying a top bank could catapult South Korea's financial services firms into the top ranks of global investment houses, which have been battered by heavy mortgage writedowns, and which have seen their share prices tumble.
But investors are jittery about a potential Lehman tie-up, which may involve top South Korean banks such as Shinhan Financial Group Woori Finance Holdings and Hana Financial Group on concerns about the extent of problems at the U.S. bank.
Shares at Woori, the country's No.3 financial services firm, tumbled 6.3 percent to their lowest in almost three years. Second-ranked Shinhan trimmed falls to close down 1 percent and No.4 Hana shares shed 2.6 percent, underperforming a 0.5 percent fall on the wider market.
KDB CEO Min Euoo-sung, who headed Lehman's local operations until earlier this year, also said his bank was in discussions to form a consortium with private banks to jointly buy Lehman, but pricing remained an issue, according to his spokesman.
Lehman declined to comment.
A senior executive of another top South Korean bank told Reuters KDB had a strong interest in Lehman, but that detailed terms of a possible agreement had yet to be determined.
The banker, who asked not to be named, said his bank would wait and see if KDB was successful in its talks with Lehman before deciding whether to join any consortium.
“It would be in the form of buying new shares or existing shares. But this kind of deal still has a high possibility of falling through, because Lehman could be in talks with other banks in other parts of the world,” he said.
A spokesman for Woori Bank, part of Woori Finance, said the state-controlled bank would also wait before making a decision to team up with KDB in any deal. Hana Financial Group denied any interest in joining a consortium bidding for Lehman shares.
Online news EDaily cited an unnamed financial industry source as saying the probability of KDB reaching a deal with Lehman stood at 30-40 percent due to pricing differences, adding the fate of any deal could be clear as early as next week.
“The size of a stake to be acquired would not be 25 percent, but rather be as much as would give KDB management rights,” the source was quoted, referring to Britain's Sunday Telegraph report that KDB could buy up to 25 percent of Lehman.
Analysts voiced concern about the risks to South Korean banks buying into the troubled U.S. investment bank.
“Nobody knows the depth of its (Lehman's) problems,” a banking analyst at a domestic securities house said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
South Korea's government has long shown interest in one of its own banks becoming a global player to aid the shift to a more service-driven economy.
But the head of the country's financial regulator last week said that role should be taken by private banks with the state sector acting as no more than a catalyst.
Analysts have said the government is worried that it may end up having to use public money if things go wrong.
However, a senior Financial Services Commission official appeared to soften that stand when he told Reuters on Monday that the regulator would stay neutral over the KDB negotiations until it knows the terms.
He suggested the government might welcome a deal with Lehman if prices come down sharply but gave no indication of an acceptable level.
Lehman shares have slumped more than 70 percent this year, trading at about half their book value and valuing the bank at around $11 billion.
The fourth-largest U.S. investment bank is looking for buyers for some $40 billion of commercial mortgages and property on its balance sheet. It is also looking to axe some 1,200 jobs, or roughly 5 percent of the workforce, in its latest round of cost cutting, a person familiar with the matter said last month.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that Lehman had intensified talks with KDB to raise as much as $6 billion in a share sale that could be concluded this week, without specifying sources.
By Kim Yeon-hee
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher, Keiron Henderson and Louise Heavens)