Blackstone In Joint Bid For Friends' Tax Arm
The private equity giant Blackstone has joined forces with a US-based specialist insurer to table a bid for the tax planning arm of Friends Life, the FTSE-100 financial services group.
Sky News understands that Blackstone and Philadelphia Financial will make a joint offer for Lombard, which specialises in wealth planning solutions for some of the world's wealthiest people.
Philadelphia Financial targets high net-worth families through a network of intermediaries, and is understood to view Lombard as an attractive opportunity to expand that area of its business.
Friends Life has been in talks to sell the division for more than six months and is understood to have set a deadline in June for offers from interested parties.
Permira, another private equity group, is also expected to lodge a bid, while interest from Warburg Pincus, another private equity firm, is said to have waned.
Responding to Sky News' disclosure of the sale plan last November, Friends Life, which was then called Resolution, said: "Resolution notes the recent speculation in the press regarding the potential disposal of its Lombard division, which comprises Lombard International Assurance S.A. and Insurance Development Holdings AG, and confirms that it is currently in discussions regarding the possible disposal.
"There is no certainty these discussions will result in a transaction being agreed. A further announcement will be made as and when appropriate."
Analysts say the Lombard unit, which is being auctioned by investment bankers at Barclays, could be sold for £400m.
Based in Luxembourg, Lombard offers "wealth planning solutions to high and ultra-high net worth individuals".
The business is viewed as non-core by Friends Life's board and a sale would see the company re-orient itself towards its home market in the UK, analysts said.
Lombard uses Luxembourg's light-touch tax regime to help shield clients' assets from the taxman and is understood to include dozens of billionaires among its key customers.
Insiders said that Friends Life was also likely to consider the sale of Friends Provident International (FPI), which provides life assurance and investment products in Asia, the Middle East and some other markets, in due course, although no sale process for that business had yet been formally planned.
FPI has offices in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Isle of Man, and primarily distributes through independent financial advisers and strategic partnerships.
Andy Briggs, Friends Life's chief executive, said late last year that it was planning to compete more aggressively with specialist annuity providers such as Just Retirement, which recently floated on the London Stock Exchange.
In March, it issued updated guidance on its plans in the wake of George Osborne's shake-up of the annuities market.
He said: "There is a negative implication for new business flows in the individual annuity market, as some people utilise the increased flexibility provided by the Chancellor's proposals.
"However, we believe that annuities will continue to be an important product for those who value the guaranteed income throughout increasingly long retirement periods."
Blackstone, Permira and Friends Life all declined to comment on Friday.