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.

The money for subprime loans comes from yield-starved investors who buy bonds backed by them. Issuance of such bonds, which pay higher rates than U.S. government debt, soared to $17.2 billion this year, more than double the amount sold during the same period in 2010, but still below the peak of about $20 billion in 2005, according to Harris Trifon, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.

The interest rates on subprime auto loans can climb to 19 percent, according to Standard & Poor’s. “Right now, you have to have fairly bad credit to be paying above 3 percent,” says Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto research firm Chrysler Group has been a beneficiary of the subprime boom. Fifty-eight percent of loans taken out to purchase its Dodge brand vehicles in October were above an annual percentage rate of 4.2 percent, the industry average, according to Edmunds. The average loan for a Dodge charged an APR of 7.4 percent, and 23 percent of the loans had APRs of more than 10 percent, making Dodge the brand with the highest percentage of loans at more than 10 percent, followed closely by Chrysler and Mitsubishi. Dodge’s U.S. sales rose 17 percent this year through October compared with a year earlier, propelling Chrysler Group to 43 straight months of rising sales.

About 13 issuers have raised money in the asset-backed bond market to make subprime auto loans this year, according to Citigroup. Among them are GM Financial, the lender known as AmeriCredit before it was acquired by General Motors in 2010, and new entrants such as Exeter Finance, owned by Blackstone Group. Exeter has issued $900 million of bonds linked to subprime auto loans this year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Exeter has higher loss rates compared with other lenders, S&P said in a Sept. 17 report. A spokeswoman for Exeter declined to comment.

Shoddy home loans packaged into bonds by Wall Street banks fueled the financial crisis. Subprime auto loans are a good investment, Helfman says: “A person that has to get from point A to point B, they’re not going to jeopardize their job. They have to pay the car payment before they pay anything else.” His Dodge Dart customer with the bad credit had to pay a higher-than-average interest rate on her loan. “It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t crazy,” he says. She was “so happy she couldn’t see straight.”

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