If a car turns out to be worth less at the end of a lease than projected, the finance company will take a loss on the lease, said Jim Ziegler, a consultant to car dealers. "It appears as a profit until they get the car back, Ziegler said.
Analysts at Moody's Investors Service said car resale values at the end of leases have so far tended to be higher than assumed, resulting in double-digit gains for finance companies and lease investors. But the gains have started to decelerate to single-digits now and they expect to see that downward pressure continue this year.
"There is still room for used car prices to decline before we see any losses," said Aron Bergman, of Moody's, but, he added, "the gains are going down."
The average monthly lease payment for the most-leased car in America, the Honda Civic, was $251 in the first quarter, according to Experian.
But when Jonathan Stierwald, a Minnesota resident, wanted to lease a car for his nephew, he found Mike Piazza Honda in Pennsylvania willing to lease him the car for three years for just $80 a month. He flew there to get the deal. The lease was financed by Honda's finance arm.
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The details of the deal could not be determined. A salesman at the Langhorne, Pennsylvania, dealership, which is owned by Piazza, the former All-Star baseball catcher, said factors such as a high credit score and higher down-payment may have helped. Honda representative Steve Kinkade said the dealership could have added its own incentives on top of the company's promotions.
Honda, which was fifth in U.S. auto sales in the first five months of the year, increased its average subsidy per leased car by 26 percent to $1,476 in that period from a year earlier, according to Edmunds.com.
Kinkade said the company is pleased with how its finance unit has paced its leasing to drive sales without too many of the cars later coming onto the used car market and depressing prices.
Others are liberally using subsidies, too. Toyota subsidized 92 percent of its U.S. leases in its fiscal year ending in March, up from 82 percent the year before.
"We can get fairly aggressive with pricing or payments, depending on what we anticipate the used market to look like," Toyota's Carey said.
Auto industry analysts and consultants said they did not think the situation was getting out of hand just yet.