Friday, August 24, 2007

Countrywide CEO sees recession ahead

Countrywide CEO sees recession ahead

By Jonathan Stempel Thu Aug 23, 5:18 PM ET

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Countrywide Financial Corp Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo said on Thursday the U.S. housing downturn is likely to lead the country into recession, but that the largest U.S. mortgage lender will survive.

In an interview, Mozilo also said that to promote liquidity, the U.S. Federal Reserve should cut the rate it charges banks to borrow.

Countrywide faced a credit shortage this month as mortgage defaults rose and capital markets tightened. On August 16, it announced an unexpected drawdown of an entire $11.5 billion credit line because it had trouble selling short-term debt.
But on Wednesday, Bank of America Corp said it would invest $2 billion in Countrywide, buying preferred securities convertible into common stock.

This eased fears about Countrywide's fate, which at least two analysts this month had said could include bankruptcy.

Mozilo called the investment a "vote of confidence" and a "priceless endorsement," but said housing and the economy were not out of the woods.
Falling home prices hurt homeowners psychologically and cause them to spend less, he said. The 68-year-old executive has worked in financial services for more than a half century.

"I've seen this movie before, and the ending of the movie always ends up in some form of recession," he said. "I can see the economy slowing down substantially enough to give the regulators, the Fed some pause in what's going to happen next."

Mozilo called on the Bush Administration and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to state that they will not allow the housing environment to get out of control.
Last Friday, the Fed cut the discount rate at which it lends to banks to 5.75 percent. Mozilo said it should be reduced so that it is the same as the federal funds rate, now 5.25 percent.

Others agree that more is needed.

"The Fed has cut the discount rate and added liquidity to the markets but those things aren't enough to turn the fundamental market around," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors in New York. He said the funds rate should be cut to 4.25 percent by year end.

Analysts have said Countrywide might lose mortgage market share to well-diversified commercial banks with deeper balance sheets, including Bank of America, Citigroup Inc, JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wachovia Corp.

Countrywide held a 17.4 percent market share from January to June, according to the Inside Mortgage Finance newsletter.

The Bank of America investment also raised speculation that the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company might eventually buy Countrywide, which Mozilo helped launch in 1969.

Merrill spokeswoman Carrie Gray declined to respond to Mozilo's comments, and said Bruce wasn't granting interviews.

Countrywide shares closed up 20 cents at $22.02. They have fallen 48 percent this year.
(Additional reporting by Joseph A. Giannone, Ellis Mnyandu and Dan Wilchins)

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