Subprime auto sales bubble? Not so, say experts

Is there a bubble in subprime auto loans?
Is there a bubble in subprime auto loans?   

As U.S. auto sales have surged to a near-record level, a growing chorus of critics have suggested the boom is being fueled mainly by sales of new vehicles to buyers with subprime credit ratings.

Now, new data from Equifax shows the fear of a subprime car sales boom is unfounded; there is no bubble in auto sales to those with a weak track record of paying their bills in time.

"I don't see a bubble in subprime lending," said Dennis Carlson, Deputy Chief Economist for Equifax. "We're not seeing a spike in subprime loans."

Carlson and analysts at Equifax ran the numbers on auto financing for new and used cars in the first quarter of this year. Their conclusion: the percentage of auto loans being written for subprime borrowers has increased slightly but not by enough to be concern.

In the first quarter of this year, 23.9 percent of the 6.66 million auto loans issued went to those with subprime credit profiles, according to Equifax. This was a slight uptick from 23.2 percent in Q1 of last year and in increase of just 3.9% from 2010 when auto sales bottomed out in the U.S.

"We have a very healthy auto lending market right now," said Carlson. "Lenders are doing a better job."

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As evidence, Equifax said that just 3.3 percent of subprime loans were serious delinquent last month, which is a slight decline compared to May of 2014.

So what's driving chatter about a severe drop in the quality of auto loans? "It's a boy who cried wolf situation," according to Carlson. "You hear a lot of negative stories when in reality many are not true."

It is true a higher percentage of vehicles are now being offered with 0 percent financing, which may lead some to believe auto dealers are pushing sales that traditionally would have not gone through.

However, those 0 percent loans are typically extended only to those with non-prime and higher credit ratings.

As the industry heads into the final week of June, some dealers believe the industry is on track for a second straight month with a sales pace above 17 million vehicles.