Conventional wisdom holds that the best time to buy a ticket on a ship -or the whole ship, for that matter- is when it is not sinking. But it is not entirely clear that Bank of America, which apparently still plans to acquire the losing Countrywide Financial, understands this principle of both physics and economics. Countrywide today reported write-downs of $3.5 billion for the first quarter of this year, along with a net loss of $893 million, more than double its net loss for the fourth quarter of 2007. It was the company’s third consecutive quarterly loss.
When CEO Angelo Mozilo boasted that Countrywide would soon return to profitability following its first-ever loss in October of last year, we expressed some doubt. Evidently, it was stringing its shareholders along with the same kind of lines that got so many of its subprime customers into the mess they are in.
The numbers are large, but the biggest eye-popper was below the surface, which, as all informed followers of the Titanic saga will know, is often where the greatest danger lurks. The company set aside $1.5 billion for bad loans compared with $158 million in the comparable quarter last year -a staggering increase of 990 percent. That thud you heard might just be the iceberg.
What more surprises await next quarter? If Bank of America is still to go through with the transaction, it will likely be on the basis of the Fed’s swap-your-junk spring deal whereby weak collateral can be exchanged for Fed happy bucks, or some other form of hokus pokus, to make the mess at Countrywide easier to swallow. One has to wonder if Congress is really on top of what’s going on here, or if the Countrywide deal is another Bear Stearns in the making under a sleeping Rip Van Bernanke?
UPDATE (April 30, 2008):Perhaps we won’t have to wait for the next quarter to see if there are more suprises. The Wall Street Journal Reports today:
A federal probe of Countrywide, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, is turning up evidence that sales executives at the company deliberately overlooked inflated income figures for many borrowers, people with knowledge of the investigation say.