The front-runners for ING Group NV's Swiss and Asian private banking units made their most extensive comments to date on their interest in the business, as the long-awaited sale draws closer.

ING is selling the businesses as part of a global restructuring program, in what would be the biggest deal in the wealth management industry since the credit crisis began.

The head of HSBC Holdings Plc's private banking arm acknowledged for the first time on Monday his company's interest in the units, which are expected to collectively fetch nearly $2 billion when finally sold.

Chris Meares, chief executive of HSBC Private Bank, told the Reuters Wealth Management Summit in Singapore the ING businesses had scarcity value for a possible buyer.

"It's really the rarity of a business ... (with) 150-odd relationship managers and the assets under management... It is very unusual for people to sell an Asian business," Meares said.

Meares declined comment, though, on whether Britain's HSBC was still in the running for the units.

While sources close to the talks have called HSBC a front-runner for the Asian operation, they have also indicated Julius Baer Group AG is a leading contender for the Swiss assets in a deal which could come as soon as this week.

"I think we will know very soon more," Julius Baer CEO Boris Collardi said at the Reuters summit in Geneva, when asked if he expected a deal on ING soon. "I'm hopeful, if terms are in the direction we would like."

Collardi declined to comment on whether Julius Baer, Switzerland's largest dedicated wealth manager, is close to a deal to buy the ING assets.

A spokeswoman for ING declined to comment.

The Dutch group is in the process of raising between 6 billion euros ($8.8 billion) and 8 billion with global asset sales under a programme it announced in April. The restructuring follows the 10 billion euros in state aid it received in October 2008.

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