By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Originally published at Wolf Street
Bank regulators have been warning, now it’s happening.
The New York Fed, in its Household Debt and Credit Report for the fourth quarter 2016, put it this way today: “Household debt increases substantially, approaching previous peak.” It jumped by $226 billion in the quarter, or 1.8%, to the glorious level of $12.58 trillion, “only $99 billion shy of its 2008 third quarter peak.”
Yes! Almost there! Keep at it! There’s nothing like loading up consumers with debt to make central bankers outright giddy.
Auto loan balances in 2016 surged at the fastest pace in the 18-year history of the data series, the report said, driven by the highest originations of loans ever. Alas, what the auto industry has been dreading is now happening: Delinquencies have begun to surge.
This chart – based on data from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, which varies slightly from the New York Fed’s data – shows how rapidly auto loan balances have ballooned since the Great Recession. At $1.112 trillion (or $1.16 trillion according to the New York Fed), they’re now 35% higher than they’d been during the crazy peak of the prior bubble. Note that during the $93 billion increase in auto loan balances in 2016, new vehicle sales were essentially flat:
No way that this is an auto loan bubble. Not this time. It’s sustainable. Or at least containable when it’s not sustainable, or whatever. These ballooning loans have made the auto sales boom possible.
But despite record low interest rates, the bane of the automakers is now taking place relentlessly:
“Seriously delinquent” auto loan balances, composed of all loans that are 90+ days past due, rose in Q4 to 3.8% of total auto loan balances. That puts them right between Q1 and Q2 of 2013, as auto credit was recovering from the Financial Crisis. Last time auto loan delinquencies had surged to that level was after Q3 2008, as the Financial Crisis was tearing into the economy:
These seriously delinquent auto loans are an indication of what is next:
- Losses at auto lenders, particularly those specializing in lending to subprime borrowers, but also other lenders, including captives, such as Ford Motor Credit, which had already warned in its most recent outlook that “we continue to see credit losses increase.”
- Tightening auto credit for consumers, as those losses begin to exact their pound of flesh from the lenders.
Some specialized subprime lenders might keel over. Larger lenders with good quality loan portfolios will bleed but go on while tightening their underwriting standards in order to weather the storm. And that’s precisely what the auto industry is dreading: tightening credit.
The auto boom over the past few years was funded by historically low interest rates and loosey-goosey underwriting, with long loan terms and high loan-to-value ratios, often over 120%. They made everything possible. But they infused the $1.1 trillion in auto loans with some very big risks.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), one of the federal bank regulators, has once again warned about the risk-taking by auto lenders:
Auto lending risk has been increasing for several quarters because of notable and unprecedented growth across all types of lenders.
As banks competed for market share, some banks responded with less stringent underwriting standards for direct and indirect auto loans. In addition to the eased underwriting standards, lenders also substantially layered risks (granted longer terms combined with higher advance rates resulting in higher LTV ratios).
These factors increased the credit risk in auto loan portfolios…. This embedded risk is now being reflected in lower recoveries at charge-off (higher loss severities) for both bank loans and securitized auto loans despite relative stability in used auto values.
Bank risk management practices and the ALLL [allowance for loan and lease losses] should reflect the elevated risk profile and higher probable credit loss severities.
So it’s all there – the ingredients for bigger losses among banks and investors, a few failures of smaller specialized subprime lenders, and belated credit tightening, both out of necessity and due to lower competition among lenders as some of the most aggressive ones will be busy licking their wounds.
And auto sales – not long ago the truly hot sector in the US economy – are now confronted with these tightening credit conditions as growth has already been stalling.
Despite what you might think, automakers did not “cut back” on fleet sales in January. But keep an eye on rideshare companies. Read… Car Sales Crash, But It’s Complicated