Auto Finance: Another Subprime Bubble?

by: Bradley Lamensdorf


Credit risk has built up from rapidly escalating lower quality loan exposure, coupled with artificially high auto and related sales enabled by easy credit.

The first signs of deterioration have appeared: delinquencies and repossessions are increasing already.

The most direct way to play is to short lenders exposed to subprime auto loans. Shorting companies benefitting from auto sales and discretionary vehicles works as well.

Conn's offers an example of what could happen.

By Brad Lamensdorf and Two Rivers Analytics

Auto Finance: Another Subprime bubble?

It is past Halloween, yet we still see the ghosts of subprime stalking unsuspecting investors again. Is the auto finance market a replay of the home loan subprime bubble on a smaller scale? We see a buildup of credit risk from rapidly escalating lower quality loan exposure, coupled with artificially high auto and related sales enabled by easy credit. The first signs of deterioration have appeared: delinquencies and repossessions are increasing already.

Some of the companies we see as most exposed are Santander Consumer US (NYSE:SC), TCF Financial Corporation (TCB), LKQ Corp. (NASDAQ:LKQ), CarMax (NYSE:KMX), Lithia Motors (NYSE:LAD), and similar financing driven discretionary companies such as Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) and Winnebago (NYSE:WGO). These and other names will be highlighted further in this piece and in a subsequent article.

Deteriorating auto loan credit quality

The data points to a buildup of risk in auto finance. Auto loan volumes have spiked, the proportion of subprime loans has increased, loan terms are lengthening and there has been an increase in loan to values. These factors all point to a buildup of risks. While the timing of the credit tipping point is uncertain, recent damage in subprime for furniture and durables reminds us that these bubbles are not sustainable forever. Conn's Inc. (NASDAQ:CONN), a leading furniture and appliance retailer, lost 31% of its value on September 3rd when it revealed a decline in the credit quality of its lending programs. This decline not only resulted in credit losses, but it also called into question the company's growth prospects. Easy credit was being used to pull sales forward.

Loan volumes are growing fast

Vehicle sales are skyrocketing. FRED data shows that vehicle sales have recovered to their pre-recession levels, if not to their absolute peaks.

Most of these sales involve financing. Unsurprisingly auto loan balances have recovered their peaks as well, setting a new record at $900bn. This record exceeds the 2005-2006 peak by about 10%.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Two Rivers Analytics.

Data from the NY Federal Reserve Bank shows that the value of subprime loans has doubled since the recession's trough. See the black line in this chart for evidence.

In the rush to lend, banks have lowered their standards. Credit quality has been deteriorating. We see this through the quality of the borrower pool, the loan-to-value (LTV) ratios made, and the average life of the loans.

Of greatest concern is the deteriorating quality of the borrowers being granted auto financing. Less qualified, lower credit score borrowers are finding willing lenders more and more easily.

A different cut of the data shows that the share of financing represented by subprime loans is rising. Equifax shows that subprime has risen to approximately a third of auto loan originations.

In addition, the amount lenders are willing to lend against new and used cars is increasing. With rising LTVs the borrower has less "skin in the game" and the lender faces a more difficult time recovering should they need to repossess the car. This chart shows that all lender categories have increased their loan to value ratios. Note that each type of lenders' loans average more than 100% of the value of the car.

Experian's data highlights that deep subprime loans are growing the fastest of the various quality categories. Deep-subprime loans increased 13% in Q2 2014. These are the worst of the worst.

As the term of auto loans increases the borrowers can generally borrow more money for a given monthly payment, and the risk to the lender increases because the amortization is slower. According to Experian, the average length of subprime was 71.2 months in the second quarter, up from 70 months a year earlier.

The market for securitized auto loans is hot as well. Barclays reports that $80 bn of new subprime auto loans have been bought by investors desperately seeking yield while the Fed keeps treasury yields near zero. This much liquidity always creates speculative excess, which is reminiscent of home loans in 2006 and the internet bubble of 1999.

Riskier loans are being made, but is quality deteriorating?

S&P thinks so:

"In our opinion, we're at a turning point with respect to subprime auto loan performance, similar to where we were in 2006…competition has intensified…The increased competition has led to lengthening loan terms and rising loan-to-value ratios, both of which generally result in higher losses.

Though many lenders have told us that their performance in recent years had exceeded their own expectations, we are now hearing that they expect losses to trend upward."

- Standard & Poor's Subprime Auto Performance: The Best Is Behind Us, Feb 26, 2014

Signs that auto loan portfolios were deteriorating could be seen by late 2013. The TransUnion credit reporting agency revealed that the rate of auto loans late by 60 or more days had risen to 0.95% from 0.87% earlier. Losses, in turn, have risen as the following S&P chart shows.

Another credit agency, Experian, startled investors when they reported that repossessions by finance companies had doubled to 2.75% in the second quarter, from 1.13% last year.

In fact, finance companies show the highest recent auto loan portfolio growth rates, at a time when subprime lending rose the most. Naturally, they are the ones seeing the largest increases in default rates.

How deep is the rot?

We have also begun to see anecdotal evidence of fraudulent loan origination. Several states have launched investigations into cases of outright fraud. Dealers have been found to have falsified employment data, income verification data and other information used to grant financing to unqualified buyers. These loans are then being repackaged and sold.

Why does this matter?

On September 3rd, when Conn's Inc. announced the deterioration of its customer financing portfolio - mostly subprime customers - its stock dropped 31%. Not only had credit losses impacted earnings directly by producing write-offs and loss accruals, but it began to dawn on investors that Conn's had driven sales with cheap credit. Once the cheap credit was no longer sustainable, Conn's became a much less attractive investment.

Conn's reported that "delinquency unexpectedly deteriorated across all credit quality levels, customer groups, product categories, geographic regions and years of origination." Their portfolio showed some of the same trends we now see in auto loans. There was a crowding out of prime lenders by subprime lender share (in this case, towards Conn's own financing programs), falling FICO scores and increasing delinquencies in the portfolio.

It is likely that the same consumer using credit for the purchase of their household durables is using the more aggressive auto finance programs. Is it that difficult to imagine that the same consumers could do similar damage to auto lenders?

How do you play this trend?

There are several ways to play the consumer/subprime credit deterioration theme. The most direct way is to sell short shares of the lenders most exposed to subprime auto loans. Another way is to sell short shares in businesses benefitting from auto sales, namely dealerships and auto manufacturers. There are also similarly situated companies that sell a more discretionary product than automobiles and are as exposed to lower quality credit consumers. These could include manufacturers and retailers of recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles, RV's and motorcycles. To the extent that purchases are driven by subprime borrowers, these companies will feel the impact if subprime vehicle loans turn down.

In terms of "pure play" subprime exposure, finance companies seem to come closest. They have the highest proportion of subprime and fast growing subprime shares.

It will help to focus on those lenders whose market shares rose the most during the recent period of subprime expansion. These lenders are likely to have put on a lot of exposure quickly during a period of aggressive credit deterioration.


Lamensdorf Market Timing Report is a publication intended to give analytical research to the investment community. Lamensdorf Market Timing Report is not rendering investment advice based on investment portfolios and is not registered as an investment advisor in any jurisdiction. Information included in this report is derived from many sources believed to be reliable but no representation is made that it is accurate or complete, or that errors, if discovered, will be corrected. The authors of this report have not audited the financial statements of the companies discussed and do not represent that they are serving as independent public accountants with respect to them. They have not audited the statements and therefore do not express an opinion on them. The authors have also not conducted a thorough review of the financial statements as defined by standards established by the AICPA.

This report is not intended, and shall not constitute, and nothing herein should be construed as, an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any securities referred to in this report, or a "buy" or "sell" recommendation. Rather, this research is intended to identify issues portfolio managers should be aware of for them to assess their own opinion of positive or negative potential.