Subprime Auto Loans: the Next Shoe to Drop?

By Mike Whitney and cross-posted from Counterpunch.org

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Booming auto sales have more to do with low rates and easy financing than they do with the urge to buy a new vehicle.  In the last few years, car buyers have borrowed nearly $1 trillion to finance new and used autos.  Unfortunately, much of that money was lent to borrowers who have less-than-perfect credit and who might not be able to repay the debt. Recently there has been a surge in delinquencies among subprime borrowers whose loans were packaged into bonds and sold to investors. The situation is similar to the trouble that preceded the Crash of 2008 when prices on subprime mortgage-backed securities (MBS) suddenly collapsed sending the global financial system off a cliff.  No one expects that to happen with auto bonds, but story does help to illustrate that the regulatory problems still haven’t been fixed.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, author Serena Ng uses the performance of a bond issue called Skopos Auto Receivables Trust to explain what’s going on. She says:

“The bonds were built out of subprime auto loans and sold in November. Through February, about 12% of the underlying loans were at least 30 days past due, a third of which were more than 60 days delinquent. In another 2.6% of loans, borrowers had filed for bankruptcy or the vehicles had been repossessed.”  (“Subprime Flashback: Early Defaults Are a Warning Sign for Auto Sales“, Wall Street Journal)

Check out those dates again. If a loan, that was issued in November, is 60 days delinquent by February, it means the borrower never even made the first payment on the debt. How can that happen unless the lender is deliberately fudging the underwriting to “slam the sale”?

It can’t, which means that dealers are intentionally lending money to people they know won’t be able to pay them back.

But why would they do that?

It’s because they know they can offload the crappy loans on Mom and Pop investors looking for a slightly better rate of return than they’ll get on ultra-safe US Treasuries. That’s the whole nine-yards, right there.  Selling vehicles is just a cover for the real objective, which is creaming big profits off toxic paper that will eventually sell for pennies on the dollar. Ka-ching!

The problem is NOT subprime borrowers who pay much higher rate of interest on their loans than more creditworthy customers.  The problem is dodgy lenders who game the system to line their own pockets. That’s the real problem, and the problem is getting more serious all the time. According to the WSJ:

“The 60-plus day delinquency rate among subprime car loans that have been packaged into bonds over the past five years climbed to 5.16% in February, according to Fitch Ratings, the highest level in nearly two decades. The rate of missed payments is higher for loans made in more recent years, a reflection of more liberal credit standards and the larger number of deals from lenders serving less creditworthy customers, according to Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services…

“What’s driving record auto sales is not the economy, but record auto lending,” said Ben Weinger, who runs hedge fund 3-Sigma Value LP in New York and who has bearish bets on some auto lenders. He said demand for auto debt has led lenders to systematically loosen underwriting standards, which he predicts will result in higher loan delinquencies.” (WSJ)

“Liberal credit standards”??  Is that what you call it when you lend thousands of dollars to someone who someone who doesn’t have a job, an address or a credit card?

Sheesh…

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