By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Royal Mail postal service should a command a value of as much as 3.3 billion pounds ($5.3 billion) when it makes its London stock market debut next month, the government said on Friday as it began taking orders for the selloff.
The sale would be one of Britain's most significant privatizations since John Major's Conservative government sold the railways in the 1990s and would give Royal Mail access to the private capital it says it needs to modernize and better compete in a thriving parcels market.
Kicking off the sale of the near 500-year-old company, the government said it would dispose of a majority stake in Royal Mail, offering shares at between 260 pence and 330p each.
That would value the company at between 2.6 and 3.3 billion pounds, raising between 1 billion pounds and 1.7 billion pounds for government coffers. The size of the offering could be increased by up to 15 percent via an "overallotment" option, whereby more stock can be sold if there is strong demand.
If that overallotment option is exercised, the government's stake could fall to as little as 30 percent following the sale.
"We are encouraged by the interest shown by potential investors so far," Business Minister Vince Cable said.
The sale plan is be the fourth time Britain has tried to take Royal Mail public, after three attempts failed in the last 19 years due to opposition from within the governing majority, which feared an electoral backlash from tampering with a revered institution whose red post-boxes are known around the world.
The latest privatization push has been criticized by the current opposition Labour party and is fiercely opposed by trade union members who are considering strike action.
Labour, which polls show as the frontrunner to win the next election, has come under pressure from its trade union backers and party activists to pledge to renationalize Royal Mail. While it has not ruled out such a promise, Labour has said it would be irresponsible to do so without first knowing how much it could cost the public purse.
The offer, which closes on October 8, will see involve the government selling at least 40.1 percent of Royal Mail. On top of this, it has agreed to give away 10 percent of the company's shares to staff in the largest share giveaway of any major UK privatization.
If the stock is distributed equally among the 150,000 eligible employees, each could receive shares worth 2,200 pounds.
The government estimated around 30 percent of the shares on offer would go to individual members of the public, who must spend a minimum of 750 pounds to invest in the company.
A recent survey of retail investors by SharePrice showed that almost half of respondents wanted to buy shares in Royal Mail, with the remaining 54 percent either not a fan of privatization or not interested in investing.
Royal Mail, which no longer includes the Post Office services and retail business, has annual revenue of more than 9 billion pounds.
The government said based on its plan to pay a full-year 2014 dividend totaling 200 million pounds, the offer price range gives Royal Mail an implied dividend yield of between 6.1 percent and 7.7 percent - making it attractive at a time when a regular UK savings account is yielding less than 3 percent.
(Additional reporting by Neil Maidment; Editing by Jane Merriman and David Holmes)