NatWest closer to US sale

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A dramatic change in UK banking strategies emerged yesterday as Bank of Scotland bought an Australian bank for pounds 442m while NatWest Group stepped up plans to dispose of its US subsidiary, NatWest Bancorp.

NatWest is thought to have appointed US investment bank Goldman Sachs to investigate ways of disposing of Bancorp. NatWest's shares rose 16p to 651p. A NatWest spokesman said: "We never, ever comment on market rumour." Goldman also declined to comment.

NatWest did, however, announce a tie-up with two South African firms to create a new financial force in post-apartheid South Africa.

Analysts said that NatWest's link with the finance house The Board of Executors and stockbroker Ed Hern, Rudolph, underlined increasing foreign bank interest in South Africa.

Bank of Scotland has bought Bank West, the state bank of Western Australia, for pounds 442m, in a dramatic widening of the Scottish bank's ambitions in the fast-growing Pacific Rim markets. The City was slightly worried by the deal, and Bank of Scotland's shares closed 7p down at 246p on a generally good day for bank stocks.

Under the deal the Scots will float 49 per cent of BankWest within 12 months of the sale; local customers will get preferential treatment.

BankWest has 23 per cent of deposits in Western Australia and 25 per cent of personal lending, with a customer base of 500,000. It made pounds 62m pre-tax profitslast year after provisions against bad debts of pounds 9m.

The price represents 1.8 times BankWest's book value and 9.1 times annual earnings. Hugh Pye, an analyst at BZW, said it was paying "a reasonably full price for a reasonably good quality business with reasonably good growth prospects." Bank of Scotland has agreed with the State Government to float the minority stake at 1.7 times book value, which analysts see as unusually close to the price paid by the Scots for control. "This may mean Bank of Scotland will end up owning more that 51 per cent, but it has enough capital to do so," said Mr Pye.

The Scottish bank is keen to tap into Westerna Australia's healthy economic growth rate of 4.5-5.5 per cent per annum. The state has massive natural resources including oil, gas and bauxite, and Bank of Scotland already has extensive experience of this kind of financing from its operations in north Sea oil.

The purchase of BankWest will bring its Tier 1 Capital ratio, the key regulatory ratio of assets against loans, down from 6.6 per cent to 5.4 per cent, still seen as a healthy level, and better than other UK banks.

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