Countrywide Credit Industries is considering forming a joint venture with an Irish mortgage lender, sources close to the company said.
Angelo R. Mozilo, Countrywide's chief executive officer, made two trips to Ireland last summer, and the nation remains at the top of the list for expansion, the sources said.
Analysts said if Countrywide were to seek a joint venture partner in Ireland, it would probably be with one of the smaller players.
"Both of the big Irish banks would be wary," said analyst Ian McEwen of Lehman Brothers' London office, referring to Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland. The two Irish banking companies hold nearly 70% of the country's banking market. "They have really dominating market presences, so it is not in their best interests to give a new entrant any help."
Mr. McEwen said smaller building societies such as First National and Irish Permanent would be more likely partners for Countrywide. Building societies are financial companies similar to thrifts here.
An Irish institution could be interested in Countrywide's technological savvy. Countrywide is widely viewed as one of the most efficient originators and servicers of loans.
"International opportunities do hold great growth potential for Countrywide," said Christopher Reed, an analyst at William Blair & Co. in Chicago. "They could bring not only scale, but technological efficiencies to any operation that they would set up."
National Australia Bank purchased HomeSide, a Jacksonville, Fla., mortgage lender last month to take advantage of greater efficiencies in the U.S. market.
HomeSide will export its mortgage servicing expertise and technology to National Australia to lower the costs of the Melbourne bank's global servicing operations, including that of its Irish subsidiary, National Irish Bank.
A Countrywide spokesman said the company has not made any firm plans on entering any international markets, but Countrywide is continuing to explore international opportunities, particularly in Canada and Europe.
The Calabasas, Calif., lender formed a global markets division last year to explore international opportunities. To date, Countrywide has not set up shop outside the United States.
Observers said Countrywide would probably choose a predominantly English-speaking country for its first European foray. And the Irish market could be more attractive to Countrywide than the United Kingdom's because of its robust economy, known as the "Celtic Tiger."
"The Irish mortgage market is unlike the United Kingdom because of demographics, the strength of the economy, the sheer demand for housing, and a faster-growing market," said Oliver O'Shea, an analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. Goodbody is the brokerage arm of Allied Irish Bank. Mr. O'Shea said outstanding mortgage assets in Ireland grew 20% in 1997.
Still, there are several major differences between the Irish mortgage market and the U.S. market. For one, variable-rate mortgages are more popular in Ireland than they are here. Refinancing is not as common because borrowers who prepay are charged penalty fees.
Mr. O'Shea said margins are coming under pressure because of increased competition but that there is less downside because the market is more conservative. Mortgages in Ireland typically have lower loan-to-value ratios than they in the United States.
In addition, mortgages are not as much of a commodity as they are here because lenders are also more likely to hold loans in their portfolio instead of securitizing them.