Countrywide Beefing Up Subprime Mortgage Loans
Habal, Hala, American Banker
As high interest rates cut into mortgage demand, Countrywide Credit Industries is ramping up home equity and subprime mortgage lending to partially make up for lost volume.
The Calabasas, Calif., lender reported Wednesday that its total loan production was off 34% from September last year, to $4.7 billion. But it said home equity lending was up 67%, to $346 million, and subprime lending 35%, to $306 million.
Countrywide's monthly report underscored a shift in strategy throughout the mortgage industry. Now that the refinancing boom has ended, lenders are making more loans to people who previously might not have qualified for a mortgage. And that is beginning to fuel concern that credit losses could rise and that increased competition -- spurred in part by programs unveiled this year by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the major secondary-market buyers of mortgages -- could freeze out smaller players that serve local markets or specialize in the subprime loans.
Analysts said big players like Countrywide and the big bank-owned mortgage banks like Wells Fargo & Co.'s Norwest Mortgage can lend profitably in the subprime sector, in part because their technology enables them to price loans according to risk.
"Delinquencies might rise, but you might not see a commensurate rise in losses,'' said Joel J. Houck of A.G. Edwards & Co. "But for those issuers who stretch for volume, they'll have problems down the road."
Mr. Houck noted that Countrywide is staying away from risky 125% loan-to-value home-equity loans, and that most of its subprime loans are to customers whose credit is only slightly impaired.
The "Norwests and Countrywides are more disciplined,'' said Howard Shapiro of PaineWebber Inc.. "It'll be the smaller players that get hurt" as they struggle to keep market share by pricing loans too cheaply.
Countrywide said its applications were off more than 50% from September 1998, to $314 million; and its pipeline of loans in process shrank by 38%, to $9.8 billion. Since January, Countrywide has cut its lending staff by about 17%, to 5,010. …