A decade ago, during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, more than 5.5 million Americans were unable to pay their car loan instalments and were more than 90 days late with their payments. Now there are more than seven million people in the United States who can't pay their car loans, seemingly illogical in the current situation of economic growth and very low unemployment (4% compared to 10% in 2009).
Around 86% of Americans use a private car to get to work. This gives you an idea of how important it is to have a car in most parts of the United States and why most people prioritise payment of their car loans over their mortgage.
As a result, some economists warn that these loan default figures published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in the economy and that we could find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Some significant data: 90% of the value of new vehicle sales is paid through a financial instrument (a loan or a lease); The total outstanding car loans in the USA is more than a trillion; the number of new loans for vehicle purchases in 2018 was $584 billion (the highest nominal figure in 19 years); according to sector reports, the average price of a new car is approaching $36,000, while the average family income in 2018 was $62,000; the average length of a vehicle purchase loan has grown to 64 months.
At first sight, all these figures can sound alarming and reminiscent of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. However, as with any statistical data, we need to put them in the appropriate context and look at the whole picture. To do this, it is important to emphasise that, despite the fact that the absolute number of defaults has increased, the non-performing loan ratio ended 2018 at 4.5%, below the 5.3% peak reached in 2009. Another key factor in evaluating the situation of vehicle loan debt is the quality of the creditors: new loans were mainly granted to people with a higher credit score, which means that 30% of outstanding car purchase loans were given to borrowers with the highest credit score.
Neither should we ignore the fact that the increase in the absolute number of loans is due to the good health of the economy and has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in car sales, meaning that the percentage of financed purchases has remained relatively stable. Finally, we need to put into the context the size of the vehicle purchase loan market (just over a trillion dollars) by comparing it to the mortgage debt market ($12 trillion).
It is undeniable that, by analysing all the figures in-depth, we can reach conclusions on the unequal access to economic growth for certain population sectors (for example, the increase in non-performing loans in the population under 30, a sector also overburdened by student loans) or on the need for infrastructure to facilitate public transportation. However, it seems unreasonable to assert that an increase in non-performing vehicle loans is leading us to the threshold of a global financial crisis such as that of 2008-2009 caused by the selling of subprime mortgages.
Column by Meritxell Pons, Director of Asset Management at Beta Capital Wealth Management, Crèdit Andorrà Financial Group Research.