Woolwich links with US mortgage giant

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The Independent Online
THE WOOLWICH yesterday teamed up with Countrywide Credit Industries, America's fourth-largest home loans provider, in a deal which paves the way for the introduction of US-style discount mortgages into UK and European markets.

The announcement, coupled with a pounds 236m special dividend payout to shareholders, throws down the gauntlet to low-cost providers such as Northern Rock, which last month said it was looking at US-style securitisation as a way of offering cheaper, more flexible deals.

Yesterday's move, which surprised analysts, was well received in the City. Woolwich shares rose by more than 5 per cent in a falling market to 384.5p. Profits before tax were ahead of expectations at pounds 505m, a rise of 10.8 per cent.

The 15p-a-share special dividend comes on top of a 10.6p ordinary dividend payout, up 11.6 per cent on last year. Countrywide has an outstanding loans portfolio worth $220bn (pounds 135bn), almost of all of it securitised. It is by far the largest US independent lender.

Angelo Mozilo, the Sicilian-American who helped found Countrywide in 1969, said the Los Angeles-based group had been looking for a European partner for two years before settling on Woolwich.

He added that, while he did not see the deal leading to a merger, there might "at the end of the road" be "some sharing of equity at a de minimis level".

The deal, details of which will be fleshed out in April, will mean Countrywide taking over the management of the 10 Woolwich processing centres in the UK, where it will introduce its own automated systems.

The operation will focus initially on servicing Woolwich's existing mortgage business. However, the plan is then to market itself as a low-cost subcontractor for mortgage processing services, both to other UK lenders and to operators elsewhere in Europe.

Mr Mozilo sees huge opportunities for reducing costs and introducing US-style mortgage products into the UK and Europe, particularly as the costs of servicing mortgages at Countrywide are half those at Woolwich currently in the UK.

John Stewart, the Woolwich chief executive, said yesterday's deal would position the group to take advantage of the low interest-rate environment that is putting pressure on margins, and of the opportunities thrown up by the euro.