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April 11, 2014

American subprime lending is back on the road

“A few short years ago, “subprime” was almost an expletive. During the financial crisis, mortgages linked to subprime borrowers – or those with poor credit history – caused devastating losses; so much so that many asset managers declared they would never touch subprime again.”

“But the financial world has a short memory, particularly when easy money and innovation collide. In recent months subprime lending has quietly staged a surprisingly powerful return, not in relation to real estate, but another American passion – cars. Some wonder how long it will be before this new boom causes another wave of casualties, not just among naive consumers, but investors too.”

The historical echoes are uncanny. During most of the past decade the amount of car-related debt grew only modestly. Yet outstanding car loans, which totalled $700bn in 2010, have jumped by a quarter in the past three years. This has led to a sharp increase in car sales, benefiting groups such as General Motors.

This upswing is striking, given that many other forms of consumer credit have remained weak since the 2007 financial crisis. Outstanding loans on credit cards, for example, have recently hovered near a 10-year low, and data this week showed they fell unexpectedly sharply, by $2.42bn in February.

But car finance – along with student loans – jumped in that same month. Even more notable is that this has occurred amid a sharp deterioration in loan quality. Five years ago, subprime loans represented barely a 10th of the total; today they account for a third. A particularly high proportion of GM cars sales are financed by subprime loans. Meanwhile, a 10th of new loans are now going to so-called “deep subprime”, or consumers who would previously have had little chance of getting funding – particularly given that incomes for poorer households have stayed flat or declined, even as car prices jumped.

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Read full Financial Times article here.

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