New Auto Lending Study Reveals Similarities To Subprime Mortgage Crisis by MagnifyMoney

Recent reports reinforce that delinquencies are reaching historic highs and losses are climbing.  MagnifyMoney wanted to look beyond the numbers and understand how consumers were shopping for auto loans, how lenders verified the creditworthiness of customers and whether the process looked like the subprime mortgage market. Unfortunately there are a lot of similarities. Given the answers to the survey, the recently reported delinquency numbers are not particularly surprising.

MagnifyMoney conducted a national survey of 673 Americans who own automobiles.  And they found that:

  • 4% of auto loan borrowers let the dealer find them a loan
  • 1% of auto loan borrowers never had their income verified when they applied for the loan
  • 6% of auto loan borrowers who took out a loan with a term longer than 5 years did so to lower their monthly payment. The remaining consumers did it because “it was the dealer’s idea.”
  • Only 34.9% of borrowers shopped online for a lower interest rate before walking onto the dealers lot

Former banker turned consumer advocate and founder of MagnifyMoney Nick Clements believes the survey offers us a warning:

  • Regulators need to recognize that many of the “underwriting failures” present in the subprime mortgage crisis are present in the subprime auto market. Dealers resemble the mortgage brokers, making money on the sale of cars and the dealer discount from lenders. Verification requirements are minimal. Complexity is increasing and the opportunity to commit fraud becomes more widespread. At worst, borrowers are talked into exaggerating their income on an auto loan application to get approved for a bigger loan. Given the limited verification and perverse incentives, this could be happening today.
  • Consumers need to protect themselves. They should shop for a rate before walking onto the lot, and then let the dealer beat it. They should set a budget based upon the cost of the car and not just the monthly payment. And they should keep the term as short as possible, given the rapid depreciation of automobiles. Unfortunately, that might mean a lot of Americans will just have to buy cheaper cars.
  • longer terms. It is now relatively easy to take out a used auto loan with a 7-year term.

New Auto Lending Study Reveals Similarities To Subprime Mortgage Crisis

The rapid growth in subprime auto lending has been making headlines recently. Total auto loan volume is close to $1 trillion, and 20% of that is being made to subprime borrowers. $27 billion of bonds backed by subprime loans were issued in 2015, compared to just under $9 billion in 2010. Even within the subprime market, the loans have become even more subprime. In 2011, 12% of securitized loans went to people with credit scores below 550. In 2015, 30% had scores below 550.

And now the delinquency and losses are starting to accelerate. According to Fitch, delinquencies on subprime auto bonds have hit historic records. 5.16% of borrowers are at least 60 days delinquent, which is the highest level since 1996. Losses have reached 9.74% as of February, an increase of 34% year-over-year. Even worse, these are delinquency and loss rates in a rapidly growing portfolio. These numbers will only get worse.

MagnifyMoney conducted a national survey (with Google Consumer Surveys*) and found that:

  • 64.4% of auto loan borrowers let the dealer find them a loan
  • 52.1% of auto loan borrowers never had their income verified
  • 82.6% of auto loan borrowers who took out a loan with a term longer than 5 years did so to lower their monthly payment
  • 17.4% of auto loan borrowers who took out a loan with a term longer than 5 years did so because “it was the dealer’s idea”
  • Only 34.9% of borrowers shopped online for a lower interest rate before walking onto the dealer’s lot

These are troubling findings. MagnifyMoney believes that many of the bad underwriting practices of the subprime mortgage crisis can be found in the subprime auto sector.

As a reminder, here are some of the critical elements of the subprime mortgage crisis:

  • Mortgage brokers received very high commissions for booked loans, but had no “skin in the game.” The brokers had a high incentive to book as many loans as possible, regardless of the credit risk.
  • Banks and mortgage companies compete for brokers’ business. That means they try to make booking a mortgage as easy as possible, by reducing verification requirements, loosening credit requirements and increasing commissions.
  • Banks and mortgage companies did not verify much information (often including income), which increased the risk of brokers committing fraud.
  • Banks and mortgage companies created increasingly complex products. The main purpose: reduce the monthly payment as much as possible to get people into bigger and bigger loans.

The MagnifyMoney survey indicate that many elements of the subprime mortgage crisis are evident in today’s auto lending market:

  • Dealers have potentially replaced the role of broker. Auto dealerships make money when they sell cars, and they make commissions (called “dealer discounts”) when they sell auto financing. Dealers, and in particular the people selling the finance products, have limited “skin in the game” if borrowers default. In many ways, dealers have the same financial incentives as the subprime mortgage brokers.
  • Auto finance companies are competing to get the dealer’s business. As a result, they are often compelled to reduce the credit criteria and relax verification. The dealer networks, which control the customer and the volume, have a lot of power of banks and finance companies hungry for volume. If a bank asks too many questions, the dealer can easily move to the next easiest lender.
  • Down payment requirements have been reducing. And, in the MagnifyMoney survey, we see that income verification requirements have also been reducing significantly.
  • To help reduce monthly payments and increase loan amounts, banks have been offering longer terms. It is now relatively easy to take out a used auto loan with a 7-year term.

The Challenge with 7 Year Loans

Extending the term on an automobile loan, especially for used cars, can be dangerous. The car loan will lose value much faster than the loan will be paid off. The concern for subprime borrowers is that the used car will break down and the borrower will be upside down (which means they will owe more money than the value of the car).

On a 7-year loan, only about 25% of the principal balance will be paid off after two years of payments. According to Edmunds, a new car loses up to 25% of its value every year. Borrowers, especially with low down payments, will likely owe much more than the value of their car during a meaningful portion of the car ownership cycle.

What Should Consumer Do?

Here are thoughts from MagnifyMoney Co-Founder Nick Clements:

“Lending bubbles usually look the same. Credit criteria is loosened. Verification standards are relaxed. The people selling the loans make money when the loans are booked, but do not suffer from losses when the loans go bad. Consumers focus on the monthly payment, rather the economics of the deal. And we convince ourselves that it will be different this time. Almost all of those elements are present in the current subprime auto lending market. Some players are clearly worse than others. And as delinquency and losses increase, which they inevitably will do, we will discover which companies have remained prudent, and which companies have been

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