Mortgage banking is dominated by big banks loaded with capital. But Angelo R. Mozilo's Countrywide Credit Industries, the only remaining large independent home lender, often beats the banks to the punch.

Mr. Mozilo, Countrywide's flashy vice chairman, said one of the company's main strengths is that it has no bank holding company to report to.

"We don't have to say a lot ot each other," he said. "We just give hand signals and we're on our way."

Observers point out that Countrywide's top executives are all longtime mortgage people, while the bank-owned mortgage companies are often run on a rotating basis by financial generalists.

Indeed, Countrywide's moves often seem prescient. While some mortgage lenders have scaled back their retail presence, Countrywide decided to open more than 50 new branches this year. Now lenders are reporting their highest refinancings since 1993, and Countrywide is benefiting more than others.

Countrywide remains the No. 2 servicer and originator, and Mr. Mozilo has steered it into the higher-profit area of subprime and home equity lending, as well as into ancillary businesses.

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