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Subprime Loans Are Boosting Car Sales

Yield-starved investors provide funds for buyers with weak credit

A woman came into Alan Helfman’s showroom in Houston in October looking to buy a car for her daily commute. Even though her credit score was below 500, in the bottom eighth percentile, she drove away with a new Dodge Dart. A year ago, “I would’ve told her don’t even bother coming in,” says Helfman, who owns River Oaks Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, where sales rose about 20 percent this year. “But she had a good job, so I told her to bring a phone bill, a light bill, your last couple of paycheck stubs, and bring me some down payment.”

As the fifth anniversary of the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest rates near zero approaches, the market for subprime borrowing is again becoming frothy, this time in the car business instead of housing. U.S. auto sales, on pace for the best year since 2007, are increasingly being fueled by borrowers with spotty credit. They accounted for more than 27 percent of loans for new vehicles in the first half of the year, the highest proportion since Experian Automotive began tracking the data in 2007. That compares with 25 percent last year and 18 percent in 2009, as lenders pulled back during the recession. “Perhaps more than any other factor, easing credit has been the key to the U.S. auto recovery,” Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, wrote in an October note to investors.