Claude Bebear Pursues His American Dream

The chairman of France's Axa covets Equitable--warts and all

Claude Bebear has one obsession: to become a big player in the U. S. insurance business. The 55-year-old chairman of French insurer Axa tried and failed, in a marathon bid for California's Farmers Group in 1989. Now, Bebear is back on the acquisition trail. And he seems to have found his prey: Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U. S. This time, the quarry may be willing. Equitable, a mutual company, aims to raise up to $1 billion to bolster its capital base, weakened by a decade-long junk-bond binge and soured real estate deals. As soon as regulators give the green light, the New York-based company wants to demutualize, or sell shares to the public. Now, Equitable is technically owned by its 2.5 million policyholders. A $1 billion investment would buy Axa more than 50% of Equitable--and control of the U. S.'s No. 3 insurer. Neither company will comment, but sources close to both insurers confirm that talks are under way.

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