Countrywide, Bear Stearns Layoffs - Tip of An Iceberg?

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Countrywide Financial is reportedly laying off staff at one of its mortgage lending units. Could that portend layoffs elsewhere?

It might, not only among mortgage originators but in a number of related sectors of Wall Street. Various industry observers have highlighted structured credit, prime brokerage and private equity as areas most likely to be cut.

An unspecified number of people were laid off Friday at Countrywide's Full Spectrum Lending subsidiary, which originates many nonconforming mortgage loans, according to Monday's Wall Street Journal. Much of Full Spectrum's business consists of Alt-A mortgages, the Journal says. Although borrowers qualify for these loans without documenting their income, they aren't considered sub-prime. Full Spectrum has a sales force of 6,800.

Countrywide is the leading U.S. home mortgage lender and the latest to run into credit trouble. The company roiled markets last week when it disclosed it drew down its entire $11.5 billion credit line from 40 banks, after having difficulty borrowing in regular credit markets.

Last Thursday, Bear Stearns announced 240 layoffs in mortgage lending units in Irvine, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz. The bank said it decided to reduce staffing levels and close two operation centers as part of a normal review aimed at finding areas "where we can eliminate redundancies and improve the efficiency of our operations."

Two mortgage-centered hedge funds run by Bear Stearns collapsed around the beginning of July, sparking a broad selloff in financial markets and prompting other banks and investors to shy away from making risky loans. But the recent layoffs appear less related to the parent company's troubles than to an industry-wide pullback from non-traditional mortgage lending that proliferated in recent years. Bear Stearns reportedly is 12th-largest U.S. home lender.

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