Flowers, Virgin Circle Northern Rock

LONDON -- Richard Branson's Virgin Group and U.S. buyout firm J.C. Flowers are the two front-runners to buy ailing British bank Northern Rock, people familiar with the situation said Sunday, but shareholders are unlikely to get much from either.

A consortium led by Virgin would launch a deeply discounted share placing for Northern Rock that would value its shares at between 20 pence (41 cents) and 40 pence each, according to the Sunday Times newspaper. The shares closed at 85.9 pence on Friday. The J.C. Flowers proposal includes a nominal offer for the shares, Reuters reported last week.

The Virgin and Flowers proposals are the top offers being considered by Northern Rock, its advisers and Britain's Treasury. A preferred bidder could be announced in the next three days, people familiar with the situation said. The Sunday Telegraph said Warren Buffett had held talks with three of the potential bidders for Northern Rock with a view to joining one of the consortiums.