‘Deep Subprime’ Auto Loans Are Surging

Updated on
  • Risky issuers lead auto-debt securitization: Morgan Stanley
  • Delinquencies in deep-subprime deals have jumped since 2012

A salesman speaks to a potential car buyer at a dealership in Los Angeles, Calif.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

About a third of the risky car loans that are bundled into bonds are considered “deep subprime,” a level that has surged since 2010 and is translating to higher delinquencies on the loans, according to Morgan Stanley.

Consumers are falling behind on most subprime car loans, but deep subprime borrowers have deteriorated fastest, the analysts said. Sixty-day delinquencies for bonds backed by these loans have risen 3 percentage points since 2012, compared with just 0.89 percentage points on all other subprime auto securities, Morgan Stanley’s Vishwanath Tirupattur, James Egan and Jeen Ng said in a report dated March 24.

“The securitization market has become more heavily weighted towards issuers that we would consider deep subprime,” the strategists wrote. “Auto loan fundamental performance, especially within ABS pools, continues to deteriorate.”

The percentage of subprime auto-loan securitizations considered deep subprime has risen to 32.5 percent from 5.1 percent since 2010, Morgan Stanley said. The researchers define deep subprime as lenders with consumer credit grades known as FICO scores below 550. The scale from Fair Isaac Corp. ranges from 300 to 850 and while there’s no firm definition of subprime, borrower scores below 600 are in general considered high credit risks.

Yield Starved

As Wall Street banks have found it tougher to profit under new regulatory regimes born out of the last subprime crisis, they’ve become more willing to underwrite riskier auto-loan asset-backed security sales. Investors, starved for returns with about $8 trillion of debt globally carrying negative yields, have in turn proven to be insatiable, further facilitating higher levels of risk in the market for the securities.

At least two dozen lenders have tapped the debt market to sell bonds that hold their subprime auto loans over the last few years. They include smaller lenders like Sierra Auto Finance, Skopos Financial and GO Financial. A high percentage of loans bundled into bonds were made to borrowers with no credit score at all.

Analysts from firms such as Wells Fargo & Co., the biggest underwriter of subprime auto bonds, to credit-grader S&P Global Ratings have noted the increasing riskiness of loans that get securitized. Both companies created modified deal indexes to filter out the higher levels of delinquencies from deep subprime issuers that they described as dragging down the rest of the market.

Broad Losses

This month, however, S&P acknowledged that losses are building across the board -- in prime, subprime as well as deep subprime. It revised its loss expectations for a wave of bond issuers of auto debt to reflect a new view that many deals may end up seeing losses far greater than initially expected.

“Many companies are increasing their loan loss provisions, which has caused some formerly profitable companies to become unprofitable. Other newly formed companies are still striving to break even,” analysts at S&P including Amy Martin said in a March 20 report.

Driving it may be that the definition of what subprime means has changed in the market after the last subprime crisis, they said.

Payment behavior among subprime borrowers after the crisis and up until around 2015 is different because those lenders were considered risky credits in an extreme situation following the recession, according to S&P. As the economy improved, so did the credit scores of such consumers. By 2015, that left subprime lenders with the dredges -- the people who never paid, and who will likely never pay.

“Many of the subprime customers from 2015 to the present have a sustained history of late payments or charge-offs," S&P wrote. “Stated slightly different, today’s subprime customer appears to be a weaker cohort than that of several years ago."

(Updates with S&P analysts’ comment in ninth paragraph.)
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