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Softbank Corp. plans to sell off by the end of the year the majority of its stake in Aozora Bank, the successor to failed Nippon Credit Bank, sources said Saturday.

Softbank is considering selling shares to three foreign companies — major French bank BNP Paribas, U.S. investment fund Cerberus Group and U.S. private equity fund Loan Star Fund, according to the sources.

The move would reduce Softbank’s stake in Aozora to less than 20 percent from the current 48.8 percent. It will remain the top shareholder in the bank, ahead of Orix Corp. and Tokio Marine & Fire Insurance Co., which both own 14.9 percent.

Softbank expects to earn roughly 35 billion yen from the deal, the sources said.

The bank initially considered unloading its entire investment to cut massive debts and put aside funds for its mainstay Internet-related businesses.

But the Financial Services Agency took issue with the proposed sale because the government sold Aozora Bank shares on the condition they be held over a longer period.

Softbank has agreed to hold its shares in Aozora Bank for at least two years.

The plan would increase foreign ownership in Aozora from the current 12.7 percent to more than 40 percent. It would not, however, give foreign stakeholders the leading role in rebuilding the bank.

Orix and Tokio Marine are set to call on Softbank to ensure that the three prospective foreign buyers acquire about the same number of shares, an 11 percent stake each.

NCB, tottering under the weight of bad loans after Japan’s asset-inflated bubble economy burst in the early 1990s, was put under state control in 1998.

The nationalized bank was sold to an investment consortium led by Softbank in 2000 after the government agreed to eliminate the bank’s negative net worth of 3.2 trillion yen with an infusion of public funds.

Aozora Bank began operating under its new name in January 2001.

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