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Russian officials in talks to transfer central bank's Sberbank stake - sources

By Tatiana Voronova and Darya Korsunskaya
FILE PHOTO: St. Petersburg International Economic Forum

By Tatiana Voronova and Darya Korsunskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian officials are in talks to transfer the central bank's stake in Sberbank <SBER.MM>, the country's top lender, to another state entity, four sources said, as unease grows about the central bank's role as both owner and supervisor.

Russia's central bank directly owns 50% plus one share in Sberbank's capital. It also became the owner of two other banks, Otkritie and Trust, after major bailouts of three private banking groups in 2017.

The idea of transferring control in Sberbank, which holds around half of all retail deposits in the country and benefits from low funding costs, is not new.

But sources said the idea got a new lease of life after the central bank assumed combined financial markets supervision responsibilities in late 2013.

"This idea has taken shape - (the central bank) is both a mega-supervisor and shareholder (in Sberbank) at the same time," one of the four sources, who learned about the talks from Sberbank executives, said.

Two other high-ranked banking sources and a high-ranked state official confirmed preliminary discussions about the idea to transfer the central bank's stake in Sberbank.

There is as yet no clarity on how, if at all, the stake could be moved or to which state entity, as the decision is yet to be made, the sources said.

Sergei Shvetsov, first deputy central bank governor, told reporters on Tuesday that existing law prohibits selling or transferring central bank's stake in Sberbank, but declined to comment further on how this situation might develop.

The central bank and the finance ministry are also at odds how dividends should be redistributed between the budget and the central bank itself. Sberbank dividends make a significant contribution to the central bank's overall profit.

Sberbank paid 361.4 billion roubles (£4.41 billion) in dividends this year. VTB <VTBR.MM>, Russia's second biggest bank, is controlled by the state via the Federal Agency for Property Management, so its dividends go directly to the budget.

Oleg Osipov, spokesman for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, told Reuters that various questions were being discussed inside the government and that there was as yet no specific decision on a potential change of Sberbank's ownership.

Sberbank declined to comment, saying it does not comment "on market rumours or suggestions". The finance ministry and the central bank did not reply to Reuters' requests for comments.

The central bank plans to sell its holdings in Otkritie and Trust sometime next decade once both are fully recovered from the bailouts.

(Reporting by Tatiana Voronova and Darya Korsunskaya; Additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Jan Harvey)