ATTORNEY: C. DOV BERGER
POMERANTZ MONITOR, MAY/JUNE 2015
Much of the blame for the 2008 financial crisis belongs to subprime mortgage lending - making loans to people who had difficulty maintaining the repayment schedule, and then bundling those loans into securities and selling them to investors. Now some observers are concerned that a recent jump in subprime auto loans could also mean disaster for markets.
Right after the financial collapse auto loans almost dried up completely, threatening the auto industry. But since then the subprime auto loan market has sprung back to life, as millions of Americans with tarnished credit easily obtained auto loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the number of auto loans made to borrowers with credit scores below 660 has nearly doubled since 2009 – a much greater increase than in any other loan type. Some sources place the increase at an even greater figure. According to the New York Times, in the five years since the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, roughly one in four new auto loans last year went to borrowers considered subprime. Figures from two consumer credit tracking firms, Experian and TransUnion, show record amounts of auto loans on the books at the end of 2014. Not only were drivers buying more cars than any year since 2006, but they were spending more on each car they bought.
The subprime auto loan market has some characteristics in common with the mortgage loan market. Risky sub-prime auto loans are being bundled into complex bonds and then sold by banks to insurance companies, mutual funds and public pension funds, just like subprime mortgage loans were in the late 2000s. Also, many subprime auto lenders are loosening credit standards and focusing on the riskiest borrowers. Recently, there have been a number of claims of abuse or outright fraud, as some lenders are accused of forging data on their customers’ loan applications, or committing borrowers into loans with terms substantially different than what had been negotiated. But most are hesitant to call the rise in subprime auto lending a bubble.
Luckily, the overall auto loan market is comparatively small -- $900 billion -- compared to $8 trillion of mortgage loans. Subprime currently makes up about 30% of overall car loans. A higher rate of auto loan defaults probably won’t cause a market decline on a scale comparable to the mortgage crisis. Second, according to some economists, borrowers tend to make car payments a higher priority than mortgage payments or credit card bills, since they need their cars to get to work, school and for many other daily necessities.
Still, the rise in subprime auto loans has caught the attention of regulators. This past summer, federal prosecutors began a civil investigation into the packaging and selling of questionable auto loans to investors. The probe is focusing on whether checks and standards were neglected as the subprime auto loan market surged and whether some borrowers’ loan applications had false information about income and employment. In addition, investigators want to know how the loans, which were pooled and assembled into securities, were represented to investors and whether the lenders fully disclosed to investors the credit-worthiness of the borrowers.
One company that has been targeted during the investigation is the finance subsidiary of General Motors G.M. Financial Company. In August, the company disclosed that it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice directing it to produce certain documents related to its origination and securitization of subprime automobile loan contracts since 2007. The United States attorney for the Southern District of New York is also looking into G.M. Financial, as well as other auto finance companies.
G.M. Financial, has been one of the largest sellers of auto loan backed bonds, selling a total of $65 billion in securities. This year, G.M. Financial sold investors roughly $730 million in bonds made up of auto loans that carried an average annual interest rate of about 13 percent. Standard & Poor’s gave most of the bonds an AAA rating, but given what we know now about the ratings agencies, that rating is highly suspect.
With total loans expected to cross the $1 trillion mark by the end of this year or early in 2016, this issue won’t disappear anytime soon. So far, the rise in subprime auto lending hasn’t slowed investors’ appetite for auto loan backed bonds, and most analysts don’t expect a rise in borrower defaults to cause a catastrophic market meltdown like the subprime mortgage crisis. On the regulatory front, aside from a settlement by one auto loan finance company over accusations that it increased the cost of auto loans for minority borrowers, there haven’t been any formal charges brought. However, regulators are clearly taking a closer look and should charges be brought in the future, it could dramatically change the way investors feel about buying securities back by subprime auto loans.