By Oksana Kobzeva and Olga Popova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's biggest lender Sberbank
Two banking sources told Reuters on Thursday that Sberbank, which postponed the plan last September due to weak markets, hopes to sell the 7.6 percent stake in a deal that would also help Europe's second-largest bank broaden its investor base.
The move, which would see the government's stake cut to a bare majority, comes less than two weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia's presidential election, ending an election cycle in which opposition protests have shaken investor confidence in Russian financial markets.
"Sberbank is now looking at the market and the situation seems to be calm. They are in the mood to do a deal in the middle of April," one of the banking sources told Reuters.
Sberbank declined immediate comment.
The stock offering would mark a milestone in chief executive German Gref's four-year drive to transform the lumbering former Soviet state savings bank into a highly profitable universal bank with international ambitions.
Sberbank vs. competitors http://link.reuters.com/vuf27s
Sberbank shares, viewed as a proxy for a Russian economy growing at about 4 percent, are traded in Moscow and have significantly outperformed those of nearest rival VTB
The bank has launched American Depositary Receipts on foreign bourses like London and Frankfurt to bolster liquidity.
The shares trade slightly above a threshold of 100 roubles suggested in October by Gref as a level that would clear the way for a secondary offer.
The sources did not say at what price Sberbank would place the stake. They had hinted that, if the lender wants to price the deal at 100 roubles, the stock needed to trade on markets at between 106 and 110 roubles.
Analysts at VTB Capital said that the market price required to get the deal away might be higher.
"We expect the placement to go with a discount to the market price... and that a (market) level of RUB 114/share would be the deal launch level," VTB Capital said in a note.
Sberbank has an equity market value of around $76 billion, second in Europe behind HSBC
"With Russian banks remaining one of the best plays on upbeat global macro sentiment and Sberbank offering the best exposure to it, we believe that demand will be strong and the placement has every reason to be successful," Uralsib analysts Leonid Slipchenko and Natalia Berezina said in a note.
The placement, if global markets remain favorable, will come several weeks after Sberbank reports its 2011 earnings under International Financial Reporting Standards on March 28 that are expected to be very strong.
The lender has already posted a record 322 billion roubles ($10.9 billion) in net profits for 2011 under Russian Accounting Standards (RAS), up 75 percent on 2010. Its return on equity - a key measure of profitability - reached 27.1 percent under RAS, viewed as a broad indicator of performance under IFRS.
That beat European peers HSBC and Santander
"The stock is traded at a 2012 estimated price to book value of 1.5, and still offers a 6 percent discount to emerging markets peers, which we find unjustified," the Uralsib analysts said. They reiterated a 'buy' recommendation on the stock with a target price of $4.30, which implies upside of 23 percent.
Sberbank, which controls nearly half of Russian household deposits, has launched a cautious acquisition drive to broaden its business, buying Moscow brokerage Troika Dialog last year for $1 billion. It closed the purchase of the east European arm of Austria's Volksbank
The stake sale, if priced at 100 roubles per share, would represent a 12 percent increase from Sberbank's last share offering in 2007 of 89 roubles, which raised $9 billion.
It would cut the state's stake in Sberbank, held through the central bank, to a bare majority from the current 57.6 percent.
The prospect of the sale could pressure Sberbank's share price. At 1105 GMT the shares were down 2.3 percent at 100.99 roubles. However, Sberbank has been courting institutional investors to buy in to the offering.
During the sale preparations last year Sberbank executives had planned to meet Asian and Arab sovereign wealth funds to line them up as core investors in the sale, including those in China, sources said at the time.
Gref also said the lender would talk to U.S. private equity firm TPG Capital, which put $100 million into a $3 billion secondary offering by VTB last year.
Russia's central bank has chosen Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan and Troika Dialog to arrange the sale.
($1 = 29.5600 Russian roubles)
(Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Mark Potter)