In the wake of the sale of HomeSide Inc., investors suddenly seem willing to bet that Countrywide Credit Industries, the last of the major independent mortgage lenders, might sell out too.
Countrywide's stock soared 13% last week. And since Oct. 27, when National Australia Bank announced it was buying HomeSide, Countrywide's stock is up more than 20%.
Founded in 1969, Countrywide has become one of the most prominent and innovative mortgage lenders-and it has been a staunch defender of its own independence.
Analysts were quick to point out that Countrywide's dramatic stock rise could be attributed at least in part to declining interest rates and to problems in the subprime mortgage sector, which have caused a flight of investors to the shares of more established companies such as Countrywide.
But on Thursday, with Countrywide's stock at its all-time high of $42, Smith Barney analyst Thomas O'Donnell released a research note listing takeover speculation as the first of six reasons for the rise in Countrywide's stock price.
Wild rumors about an imminent sale of Countrywide began to circulate. BankAmerica Corp., Bank of Tokyo, and Deutsche Bank were all mentioned as possible suitors.
Some observers said Countrywide would make a better fit for an international bank. The Calabasas, Calif., lender, which services $170 billion in mortgages for more than 1.5 million borrowers, would provide a formidable entree to the U.S. market.
National Australia Bank has said one of the reasons for the HomeSide deal was to take advantage of HomeSide's servicing technology to lower servicing costs throughout the Australian bank's global mortgage operations. And Countrywide is viewed by many in the industry as one of the most innovative companies in technology.
Many observers also pointed out that Countrywide vice chairman Angelo R. Mozilo has been talking about international opportunities frequently in the last few months.
Mr. Mozilo has mentioned in interviews that the costs of servicing mortgages in other areas of the world, especially Europe, is much higher than in the United States.
Investment bankers said the National Australia deal may have proven that foreign banks see more value in a large mortgage operation. National Australia agreed to buy HomeSide for $1.2 billion, a price that many investment bankers said was steep.
Countrywide's market value is $4.4 billion. Investment bankers said even though recent bank mergers have driven valuations of financial services companies higher and higher, it was doubtful a U.S. bank would want to ante up $5 billion or more for a mortgage company.
But is Countrywide really looking for an acquirer? Robert W. Berta Jr., a senior vice president with Countrywide, said the company does not comment on rumors.
Mr. O'Donnell said the merger speculation he referred to in his note was not related to any specific deals.
But he noted that with North American Mortgage, which was bought by Dime Bancorp last month, and HomeSide, out of play, Countrywide's value has increased.
"Just because there is speculation doesn't mean anything is going on," Mr. O'Donnell said.
George Bicher, an analyst with BT Alex. Brown, said the increase in Countrywide's stock price can be attributed in part to declining interest rates. As rates continue to fall, investors may be thinking that Countrywide's earnings would benefit from a refinancing wave.
Some analysts said it would be unlikely for Countrywide to sell now, because a refinance boom has not yet begun.
"If the company wanted to sell, it wouldn't sell at the beginning of a boom," said Richard X. Bove, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates. "It would sell at the top of the boom."
But Mr. Bicher did not discredit the takeover rumors. He said Countrywide might be looking to sell in order to lower its costs of capital.
"The big banks have better access to capital," Mr. Bicher said. "Countrywide tends to be at a disadvantage."