The U.K. government sold a 3.2 billion-pound ($5.1 billion) stake in Lloyds Banking Group Plc (LLOY), a first step toward full private ownership of Britain’s largest mortgage lender.

UK Financial Investments Ltd., which oversees the government’s holding in the bank, sold 4.28 billion shares, or about 6 percent of the company’s issued stock, to money managers, the London-based body said in a statement today. The shares were priced at 75 pence.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, constrained by the biggest austerity program since World War II, could use the proceeds to fund tax cuts or more spending before the next general election, due in 2015. He has said Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, which received a 45.5 billion-pound bailout, is still burdened by too many poor assets to be sold.

“When you look at the share price, the government has been pretty smart in terms of their timing,” said Ian Gordon, an analyst at Investec Plc (INVP) in London who has a sell rating on the stock. “It’s also a digestible amount.”

The stock has climbed 61 percent this year to 77.4 pence in London yesterday, above the 61 pence the government says it will break even after providing a 20 billion-pound rescue in 2008.

JPMorgan, UBS

Lloyds will be the largest sale of secondary shares since a 5 billion-pound transaction in Italy’s Enel SpA (ENEL) in August 2004, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Volumes of the sales doubled to nearly $67 billion this year, the data show.

The government was seen selling as much as 5 billion pounds of Lloyds shares, three people with knowledge of the plan said in July. The transaction will reduce the government’s stake in Lloyds to 32.7 percent from 38.7 percent.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Bank of America Corp. and UBS AG are managing the offering while Lazard Ltd. (LAZ) is acting as capital-markets adviser, according to a statement from UKFI. The government still owns 81 percent of Edinburgh-based RBS.

“We want to get the best value for the taxpayer, maximize support for the economy and restore them to private ownership,” the Treasury said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “The government will only conclude a sale if these objectives are met.”

‘Good News’

UKFI and the Treasury have agreed not to sell any more Lloyds shares for 90 days without the written consent of a majority of sale managers, according to the statement.

“Lloyds is well-liked and the government selling out will only be good news,” Alan Beaney, who manages 57 million pounds, including Lloyds shares, at RC Brown Investment Management Plc in Bristol, England, said before the announcement. “It will be less hampered” by government, he said.

The government originally paid about 73.6 pence for its Lloyds shares. The Treasury’s 61 pence break-even price takes into account fees the bank paid for the option of insuring its worst assets with the government.

The Lloyds sale is the government’s biggest since the financial crisis erupted. The Treasury returned part of Northern Rock Plc, the first British lender to suffer a run in 150 years, to private hands in November 2011, selling a portion of the lender to Virgin Money Holdings U.K. Ltd. for an initial 747 million pounds. The U.K. sold 400 million pounds of consumer loans issued by Northern Rock in July and still owns the remainder of the bank and Bradford & Bingley.

Lloyds Dividend

In July, the government hired JPMorgan to advise on a strategy for returning both Lloyds and RBS (RBS) to private investors. It also shortlisted 11 banks as potential bookrunners for a stock offering.

The following month, Chief Executive Officer Antonio Horta-Osorio said Lloyds was ready for a government sale after it swung into profit in the first half after three years of losses and said it will start talks with regulators about resuming dividends. Lloyds last paid a cash dividend in 2008, before its takeover of HBOS Plc forced it to seek external aid.

The bank posted a first-half profit of 1.56 billion pounds as impairments for souring loans fell. Lloyds has been buoyed by the country’s economic recovery and rising home prices. A U.K. house-price gauge rose to the highest in almost seven years in August, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The government is selling its stake after President Barack Obama postponed an attack on Syria following a diplomatic plan proposed by Russia. Escalating tensions over Syria could have delayed the sale, three people with knowledge of the discussions said earlier this month.

The Treasury this month also started the sale of a majority stake in Royal Mail Group Ltd., the 360-year-old postal service. Barclays Plc (BARC), Britain’s second-largest bank by assets, is seeking to raise 5.8 billion pounds in a rights offering this month to help boost its capital buffer.

Lloyds is the best-performing of Britain’s five biggest banks this year, surpassing Barclays’s 16 percent gain, RBS’s 13 percent increase and HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA)’s 9 percent rise.

(Source: Bloomberg)