Norwest Corp.'s mortgage unit last week reported a 53.5% jump in first- quarter earnings to $51.9 million, the sharp rise fueled by a surge in refinancings.

The quarterly profit nearly matched the company's $56.3 million profit for all of 1993, during a refinancing boom, when refinancings accounted for more than half of total fundings.

Norwest Mortgage Inc., Des Moines, said 57% of its $20.9 billion of originations in the quarter came from refinancings. Originations rose 33% from the 1997 period, and funding volume was more than twice what it was in last year's first quarter.

Norwest's mortgage servicing portfolio-the largest in the nation-reached $211.8 billion at the end of the first quarter, with more than 2.1 million homeowners. BankAmerica Corp.'s portfolio probably would surpass Norwest's if BankAmerica's merger with NationsBank goes through.

Norwest's retail network, with 750 stores nationwide, accounted for $11.5 billion, or 55%, of the company's first-quarter origination volume.

Correspondent and wholesale lending, or third-party originations, accounted for $9.4 billion.

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