As it prepares to report its fourth-quarter financial results on Tuesday for what is likely the last time as an independent company, Countrywide Financial ( CFC) doesn't appear eager to hear best wishes from analysts and investors. The 39-year-old company founded by CEO Angelo Mozilo has cancelled its analyst conference call, an event that in recent quarters spanned two hours or more, as the credit crisis deepened. Countrywide on Friday cited its pending sale to Bank of America ( BAC) for $4 billion as the reason for not holding the call. That means analysts -- with investors and media able to listen in -- will no longer be able to grill Mozilo and other executives about topics including the company's tenuous liquidity, deteriorating credit quality metrics, housing outlook or the chief executive's decision earlier Monday to
forfeit $37.5 million in severance payments and other perks. Countrywide shares were down as much as 4.5% on Monday. For the most part, analysts are optimistic that the lender's latest results and tone are at least somewhat better than those for its third quarter. Analysts on average expect Calabasas, Calif.-based company to report a loss of around 30 cents a share in the fourth quarter and a loss of $1.66 a share for the full year, according to Thomson Financial. Countrywide posted a third-quarter loss of $1.2 billion, or $2.85 a share. Despite the loss, Countrywide had said it planned to return to profitability in the fourth quarter and in 2008 -- which at this point seems unlikely. The nation's largest independent mortgage lender has been plagued by writedowns on loans that the company could not sell, as well as rising credit losses as home prices fell and borrower defaults rose. As the markets for mortgage-backed securities essentially froze up this past summer, Countrywide faced a liquidity crisis so large that many investors feared the company would go under. Instead, it received a $2 billion cash infusion from what will soon become its owner, Bank of America, and drew down an $11.5 billion credit line to keep funding loans. Like other lenders, including IndyMac ( IMB) and Washington Mutual ( WM), Countrywide has had to retool its business. It has cut thousands of employees and lowered loan production to only those loans that can either be sold to government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae ( FNM) or Freddie Mac ( FRE), or that Countrywide can hold onto itself. Indeed, Countrywide's reported December foreclosures more than doubled to 1.44% on the more than 9 million loans it services compared with the year-ago period, the company said earlier this month. Delinquencies as a percentage of unpaid principal balance rose to 7.2%, up nearly 3 percentage points, it said. Total loans funded last month rose 1% from November, despite falling 45% from the year-earlier period, to $24 billion, Countrywide said. The mortgage loan pipeline totaled $35 billion on Dec. 31, down 18% from a year earlier. The lender's daily average mortgage application activity totaled $1.5 billion, down 21% from mortgage application activity in November. "When it released third-quarter earnings in October, Countrywide said it believed it had reached the 'trough' of the credit crunch, and said it expected to be profitable in the fourth quarter and 2008. This optimism now seems, at best, premature," writes Kathleen Shanley, a senior investment grade analyst at Gimme Credit. Paul Miller, an analyst Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group, lowered his earnings estimates to zero. Earnings estimates "have become meaningless, as we expect earnings losses to flow through 2008," he wrote in a recent note.
That being said, if Countrywide's loss is much worse than expectations, some say the losses will be cause for BofA to revise its terms of agreement -- or worse, cancel altogether. "If market conditions continue to deteriorate throughout the next few months and losses on
Countrywide's books increase beyond Bank of America's expectations, we believe that there is a high likelihood that the deal price will be negotiated," Friedman Billings' Miller writes. "The purchase price of $4 billion reflects a writedown of about 10% to 12% in the bank portfolio, with the purchase price going primarily to the mortgage servicing rights and the mortgage lending operations," Miller adds. Still, at least one analyst is bullish on Countrywide. Howard Shapiro, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton, expects the lender to earn 29 cents a share for the fourth quarter. Though down from the 59 cents he originally predicted, Shapiro's is one of the highest estimates of the 13 submissions, according to Thomson. Shapiro based his estimate on "improved economics in its servicing business and a return to profitability in the bank, despite a further expected sharp increase in loan loss provision costs and continued unprofitability in its mortgage production business," he wrote in a Jan. 10 note. That being said, Shapiro expects Countrywide to take a $150 million charge for the writedown in its residual exposure, "amidst widening credit spreads in the quarter and sharp deterioration in the performance of home equity loans," as well as provision costs of $550 million, among other things, he wrote.