May 2, 2008 / 8:10 PM / in 10 years

Countrywide said junk rating would hobble business

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even as it prepares to be acquired by Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), Countrywide Financial Corp’s CFC.N descent to a “junk” credit rating could hinder its ability to make loans and collect deposits, the mortgage company has warned.

Signage at the offices of Countrywide Financial Corporation are seen in Calabasas, California November 20, 2007. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

The largest U.S. independent mortgage company faces some significant obstacles now that Standard & Poor’s on Friday cut its credit rating to below investment grade, according to Countrywide’s annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on February 29.

The disclosure was made more than a month after Countrywide agreed to be acquired by BofA for $4 billion, a deal that was expected to save the struggling home lender from ruin.

According to the filing, its ability to access funds for making loans and attract deposits may be “severely limited” if any of three rating agencies downgraded it to junk. These warnings, part of a routine run down of risk factors, have suddenly become more than a hypothetical problem.

“If we were to suffer a significant credit rating downgrade, it could have a substantial adverse impact on our operations,” the company said.

Among other woes, a junk rating would limit access to public debt markets and the ability to attract commercial deposits and arrange other sources of financing, Countrywide said.

Countrywide has been hard hit by the mortgage market slump that has eroded the value of mortgage loans, slashed demand for new loans and claimed dozens of lenders.

Moody’s Investor Services previously rated Countrywide Baa3, its lowest investment grade rating, while Fitch Ratings and S&P had given the lender a rating of BBB-plus, or three notches above junk.

Since the end of last year, all three agencies placed Countrywide on some form of negative outlook, reflecting worries that continued declines in mortgage markets would further weaken the company.

A downgrade by S&P could result in the acceleration of certain secured debt obligations, Countrywide said, and adversely affect the ability to continue trading and hedging its loans, servicing rights, retained interests.

Also, a downgrade increases financing costs and may hurt its ability to attract and retain deposits, a key source of funding, as well as its ability to hold custodial accounts on deposits.

At the end of last year, up to $4.2 billion of custodial deposits were subject to placement with another bank if Countrywide’s credit became junk.

Reporting by Joseph A. Giannone and Christian Plumb, editing by Phil Berlowitz

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