A record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in February, even more than during the wake of the financial crisis era.
Economists warn this is a red flag. Despite the strong economy and low unemployment rate, many Americans are struggling to pay their bills.
A car loan is typically the first payment people make because a vehicle is critical to getting to work, and someone can live in a car if all else fails. When car loan delinquencies rise, it is a sign of significant duress among low-income and working-class Americans.
People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work.
The New York Fed said there were over a million more “troubled borrowers” at the end of 2018 than there were in 2010, when unemployment hit 10 percent and the auto loan delinquency rate peaked. Today, unemployment is 4 percent, and many more Americans have jobs, yet a significant number of people cannot pay their car loan.
Most of the people who are behind on their bills have low credit scores and are younger than 30, suggesting young people are having a difficult time paying for their cars and student loans at the same time.
Auto loans surged in the past several years as car sales kept growing year after year, hitting a record high in 2016 of 17.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. The auto industry has suffered from high defaults among so-called “subprime” borrowers with credit scores lower than 620.
The share of auto loan borrowers who were three months behind on their payments peaked at 5.3 percent in late 2010. The share is slightly lower now—4.5 percent—because the total number of borrowers has risen so much in the past several years. Still, economists are concerned the rate has been climbing steadily since 2016 even though unemployment fell to its lowest level in almost half a century and the number of people impacted is far greater now.
Experts warn Americans to be careful where they get their auto loan. Traditional banks and credit unions have much smaller default rates than so-called “auto finance” companies such as the “buy here, pay here” places on some car lots.
Fewer than 1 percent of auto loans issued by credit unions are 90 days or more late compared with 6.5 percent of loans issued by auto finance companies.
Rates can vary substantially depending on a borrower’s credit score and where they obtain a loan. A “prime” borrower with a credit score in the range of 661 to 780 can get an auto loan rate of about 4.5 to 6 percent, according to NerdWallet. In contrast, a subprime borrower is typically looking at rates between 14.5 and 20 percent.
After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans.
Repossessing a car is also a quicker process thanks to technology and the laws in many states. Some cars are installed with devices that prevent the car from turning on if someone misses a payment. It has also become easier to track license plates and geo-locate a car to repossess it.
While defaults on auto loans are a red flag, they are unlikely to take down the entire financial system like mortgages did in the lead-up to the 2008-09 financial crisis. The total auto loan market is just over $1 trillion, far smaller than the $9 trillion home mortgage market.
The amount of money people borrow to buy a car is also much smaller—typically under $35,000—vs. a home loan where people often borrow several hundred thousand dollars.
—Heather Long | The Washington Post