Shares of Countrywide Credit Industries, the nation's biggest mortgage banking firm, plummeted on Thursday after losing a "buy" rating from Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

The stock was down $2, or 6.6%, to $28 in late trading after analyst Jonathan Gray cut his rating to "market performer."

His downgrade was based on the likelihood of a Federal Reserve tightening this year.

"Our favorable investment opinion regarding the mortgage bankers always has been explicitly predicated on stable or lower mortgage rates," he said.

Company Seen as Vulnerable

The analyst acknowledged that the yield curve is so steep that even a tightening might not cause the mortgage rate to increase beyond its current 7.5%.

"Nevertheless, if the Fed tightened, investor uneasiness would depress investment performance" among mortgage bankers, he said.

He said Countrywide stock could be. vulnerable since it is "less undervalued than some other mortgage companies."

Mr. Gray said two others, Margaretten Financial Corp., Perth Amboy, N.J., and North American Mortgage Corp., Santa Rosa, Calif., "in particular are severely undervalued."

Fleet Mortgage Group, Providence, R.I., is also "cheap" compared with Countrywide.

Fannie, Freddie Recommended

In addition, he suggested that clients consider shares of the two government-sponsored secondary mortgage enterprises, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. and Federal National Mortgage Association, as well as those of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, Calif, and Great Western Financial Corp., Chattsworth, Calif.

On Thursday, Margaretten lost 37.5 cents to $17.125, North American was off 75 cents to $24.50 and Fleet Mortgage was off 37.5 cents to $20.625.

Meanwhile, Freddie Mac slipped 37.5 cents to $50.50, and, Fannie Mae dropped 25 cents to $76.625. Ahmanson was up 12.5 cents to $18.375, and Great Western dropped $1 to $43.25.

The analyst said he still considers Countrywide "the best-managed and the most attractive vehicle in the industry from a fundamental standpoint."

A case can be made that the stock should be selling in the $40-to-$50 range, he said, but that is unlikely, "barring a major decline in long-term rates."

FASB Rule Change

Meanwhile, Margaretten and North American shares could be much bigger beneficiaries than Countrywide if the Financial Accounting Standards Board amends accounting procedures that understate earnings per share of mortgage companies that originate, rather than purchase, the loans they service.

He thinks there is a better than even chance the accounting board will adopt the change by the end of 1994.

If the accounting adjustment were applied against estimated 1994 results, Margaretten would benefit most, he said, with earnings of $6.47 a share, or about double the $3.40 that Mr. Gray now forecasts.

Robust Loan Origination

Earnings at North American could move to $4.60 a share, up 90% from an expected $2.30. Those at Fleet could rise 20% on the change to $3.32 from $2.75.

But for Countrywide, the gain would be a relatively modest 11.2%, to $3.67 from an anticipated $3.30.

Countrywide has enjoyed huge gains in mortgage loan production, which will likely reach $38.6 billion this year.

That number may fall to $28.3 billion next year. That would be in line with the rest of the industry if rates remain stable and the wave of mortgage refinancings passes, the Bernstein analyst said. But loan servicing volume will more than cover a shift to lower loan production, he said.

Countrywide announced Thursday that it funded $4.1 billion of mortgage loans in May, up 86% from a year earlier.

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