Don't Look Now, But The Subprime Auto Bubble May Be Bursting

Well, it’s official: the cat is out of the bag on what’s "driving" (no pun intended) record US auto sales.

Anyone who frequents these pages is by now well-versed in the idea of "originate to sell." It’s the dynamic that helped create the housing bubble and it’s now in full effect in the auto loan space. 

The concept is simple. When demand is strong for paper backed by a particular type of asset, Wall Street obliges by cranking up the securitization machine. Thanks in part to the Fed-induced hunt for yield demand for auto loan-backed ABS has been strong. Supply should come in at around $125 billion this year - that’s up 25% from 2014 and accounts for more than half of total consumer loan-backed issuance. Here are the latest projections from BofAML:

In this environment, competition among lenders keen on getting in on lucrative securitizations heats up - the more fierce the competition, the less scrupulous the underwriting and before you know it, you’ve got tens if not hundreds of billions in paper floating around backed by loans to underqualified buyers. 

It doesn’t take a securitized products strategist to figure out what happens next (although as Ben Bernanke showed us in 2006, it is apparently far too complex for a PhD economist). Borrowers who never should have been given loans in the first place start to default and the ABS collateral pools quickly transform from collections of pristine credits to steaming cesspools. 

We’ve talked until we’re blue in the face about the lunatic terms being extended to buyers in the auto market, but the following bullet points (derived from Experian’s Q1 data) are always worth recapping:

  • Average loan term for new cars is now 67 months — a record.
  • Average loan term for used cars is now 62 months — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 30%  of all new vehicle financing — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 16% of all used vehicle financing — a record.
  • The average amount financed for a new vehicle was $28,711 — a record.
  • The average payment for new vehicles was $488 — a record.
  • The percentage of all new vehicles financed accounted for by leases was 31.46% — a record.

That's the story and it's one we've told before, but just so it's clear that everyone else is now catching up, here's Bloomberg with a summary of a new Nomura note:

Losses on car loans taken out by bad-credit borrowers are continuing to climb, thanks in part to the flood of rookie auto finance companies that have entered the market in recent years. You can see the rise in subprime borrowers struggling to make car payments in monthly data on bond deals sold on Wall Street. So-called subprime auto asset-backed securities (ABS) bundle together car loans and then sell them to big investors.


July reports show that annualized net losses on such bonds—a measure of the cost of bad debt—rose 1.45 percentage points over the past year to reach 6.6 percent last month, according to Nomura analysts.


What's driving the rise? Nomura has an idea.


"The significantly weaker performance in the subprime auto sector is being driven by an increase in issuance from the lesser established issuers," researchers led by Lea Overby said in a report.

Smaller, newer bond issuers fueled 37 percent of the sales of subprime bonds last year, up from 27 percent in the previous year, according to Nomura's figures. 



As the small upstarts fight for market share, the concern is that they'll lower their standards too much and drag established lenders with them, inviting even greater trouble down the line. Many of the new players are backed by the biggest private-equity firms, which are under pressure to produce relatively quick returns.

For those curious to learn more about these "small upstarts" who may be "lowering their standards too much," look no further than "Meet Skopos Financial, The New King Of Deep Subprime," excerpts from which are included below.

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Texas-based Skopos Financial has both raised and lowered the bar at the same time by setting a new standard for what counts as questionable collateral while simultaneously proving that in a NIRP world, investors are willing to plumb the FICO depths for yield.

Via Bloomberg:

Skopos Financial, a four-year-old auto finance company based in Irving, Tex., sold a $149 million bond deal consisting of car loans made to borrowers considered so subprime you might call them—we dunno—sub-subprime?


Details from the prospectus show a whopping 20 percent of the loans bundled into the bond deal were made to borrowers with a credit score ranging from 351 to 500—the bottom 6 percent of U.S. borrowers, according to FICO. As a reminder, the cut-off for "prime" borrowers is generally considered to be a credit score of around 620. More than 14 percent of the loans in the Skopos deal were made to borrowers with no score at all.  That means the Skopos deal has a slightly higher percentage of no-score borrowers than the recent subprime auto securitization recently sold by Santander Consumer, which garnered plenty of attentionfor its dive into "deep subprime" territory.


Who is Skopos Financial you ask? We’ll let them tell the story in their own words:

In 2011, Skopos Financial opened its doors with one goal in mind making tough, deep subprime auto loans easier to finance for dealers.


Leveraging our sophisticated, patented iLender technology and visionary management team, Skopos provides a streamlined process for franchise dealers to finance customers with low credit scores.


As an indirect auto lender, Skopos offers solutions for car buyers with no credit, low FICO scores, or a previous bankruptcy, repossession or foreclosure. And the best part is the speed. Skopos' dealers enjoy fast underwriting, fast approvals and fast funding.

Yes, the "best part is speed." We suppose the process is quite efficient considering there appear to be no underwriting standards whatsoever. 

As for the "visionary" management team, have a look at the following profiles which seem to indicate that at least for some industry veterans, Santander Consumer isn’t quite subprime-y enough (note that there’s a Countrywide link in there as well for good measure):