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EXCLUSIVE-Swiss payment firm Global Blue to hire banks for 2018 listing - sources

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HONG KONG/LONDON, July 19 (Reuters) - The owners of shopping tax-refund firm Global Blue have held talks with investment banks over the past two days to choose advisers for a possible share sale next year, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The deal could value the Swiss firm at up to 3 billion euros ($3.46 billion), one of the sources said.

Silver Lake, which has controlled Global Blue since 2012, is expected to select banks later this year with a view to floating the business in the first half of next year, the sources said.

Several banks have pitched for an initial public offering (IPO) mandate at Silver Lake's London offices this week, the sources said, adding the process was still at an early stage.

Reuters reported last year that Silver Lake and Partners Group, which has a minority stake in the business, had started sounding out possible bidders and had signed non-disclosure agreements with a series of interested parties.

The sources said Silver Lake is now looking to press ahead with an IPO in the first half of 2018 but has yet to decide where to list the company.

The U.S. buyout fund sees an IPO as its preferred option, the sources said, and has no plans to launch a sales process this year.

Global Blue serves tourists who buy luxury goods while abroad. It has been backed by private equity investors for the past nine years, with Silver Lake and Partners Group being the latest funds to come onboard in 2012.

The business relies on Chinese, Middle Eastern and Russian tourists who use its network to purchase goods tax free, and as such has drawn interest from Asian buyers seeking access to European markets, the sources said.

Chinese conglomerate HNA Group is among a group of Asian bidders who are interested in submitting an offer for Global Blue, which operates in 51 countries across the world and employs about 1,800 people, another source said.

HNA, which declined to comment for this story, bought a 16.79 percent of Swiss airport duty-free retailer Dufry AG in April and remains interested in scouting out assets that cater to China's growing foreign travellers, sources familiar with the company said.

While an outright sale is not seen as option, some of the sources said the company's listing plans might be scuppered should aggressive bidders like HNA step in with an offer.

Private equity funds including Warburg Pincus have also looked at Global Blue, the sources said. They said the business was seen as an attractive investment opportunity for those focused on financial services firms. Warburg Pincus declined to comment.

Global Blue reported 115 million euros in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) in the year ending March 2015, representing a 13 percent drop on the previous year, a report by Moody's Investors Service said.

A source familiar with the business said Global Blue is highly leveraged and might struggle to fetch a valuation as high as 3 billion euros.

In a statement last year, the company said 2016 was a "turbulent year for the tax free shopping industry" due to factors such as militant attacks and currency fluctuations which affected the company's performance.

Without disclosing any financial figure, the statement said Global Blue's tax free shopping sales were hit hard at the start of the year but returned to stability in the last quarter of 2016, growing 3 percent in December.

($1 = 0.8681 euros) (Additional reporting by Julie Zhu; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Jane Merriman)