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Bidders compete for Axa unit

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(Reuters) — About two dozen bidders, mainly from China, are vying to buy the Hong Kong wealth management unit of Axa S.A., which the French insurer is looking to sell as it focuses on fast-growing businesses in Asia, three people familiar with the matter said.

Axa Wealth Management HK Ltd., which offers savings and investment-linked insurance products, is expected to be valued at about $500 million, the sources said.

The unit’s purchase would allow its buyer to get a toehold in Hong Kong’s lucrative insurance sector, without having to stand in queue for a license that could take a long time to get.

Interest in Axa’s unit has mainly come from some insurers, Chinese state-owned enterprises, private investment groups and property companies, the sources said.

China Taiping Insurance Holdings and Country Garden Holdings Co. are among the companies that have shown interest, said the sources, who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak to media on the deal process.

Axa and China Taiping declined to comment, while Country Garden did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hong Kong’s insurance sector has seen a flurry of M&A deals over the past two years as buyers, mostly deep-pocketed Chinese investors, target an industry that has been benefiting from strong sales of policies to people from the mainland.

Hong Kong is home to 161 authorized insurers with about $48 billion in insurance premiums -- small compared to $1.3 trillion in the United States and the United Kingdom’s $321 billion, but growing at a fast clip.

Hong Kong is a developed life insurance market, with a life and health insurance premium to GDP ratio of 13.4% in 2015, the second-highest in Asia, according to Swiss Re.

Last year, China’s Fujian Thai Hot Group, relatively new to Hong Kong financial circles, bought Dah Sing Financial’s life insurance unit for $1.4 billion in Hong Kong’s most expensive insurance M&A.

Axa Wealth in Hong Kong is one of the last life insurers up for grabs in the Asian financial hub, the sources said.

“Given the small size, a lot of buyers can afford this and scale it up,” one of them added.

Axa is looking to wrap up the sale of the unit in a few months, the sources added.