Friday, May. 09, 2014, 11:12 AM UPDATED 12:34 AMBy Nick Zulovich
Remember 2005? That’s when the BlackBerry was the smartphone of choice, and the Federal Reserve pushed the short-term interest rate to 3 percent, marking the eighth increase in less than a year. That year also was the last time this much paper and metal was on the street.
The latest Equifax National Consumer Credit Trends Report showed the total balance of outstanding auto loans in March rose 10.3 percent from the same time a year ago to $874 billion.
Furthermore, the total number of loans outstanding is 6.1 percent higher year-over-year, as 63 million contracts are filling finance company portfolios.
Both metrics are at nine-year highs, which is “great news,” according to Jennifer Reid, the senior director of product marketing at Equifax Automotive Services.
“All in all, it’s very positive just to get back there,” Reid said during a phone interview with SubPrime Auto Finance News this week. “I joke because you talk to people who live month-to-month within the car business and you start to think, ‘Wow, it took us nine years to get back here.’ I hope we don’t forget that it took us nine years to get back.
“The big question now is have we learned from some of the things that got us to where we were five years ago? As long as we continue to keep these healthy trends of growth, we’re buying loans smart. Dealers are taking care of the customer, really focusing on that customer experience to build their businesses. I think it’s going to be a wave we’re going to continue to ride,” Reid continued.
Equifax’s data also showed the total number of vehicle loans originated in January came in at 1.8 million, an eight-year high and an increase of 4.7 percent year-over-year.
And with a greater volume of contracts associated with terms lasting 60 to 72 months, Reid suspects that the levels of outstanding contracts and balances likely will stay at current levels — or possibly rise.
“It speaks to the fact that money is being lent,” Reid said. “I think when you start to see those longer terms, traditionally you’re seeing customers get into a little more vehicle. The payments haven’t necessarily drastically dropped but some of the ticket prices have crept up. The good news is the vehicles from a technology standpoint are better than they ever have been.”
Meanwhile, Equifax is seeing delinquencies and write-offs drifting upward slightly but not at a significant rate. Reid pointed out how watching these trends also is considerably different than nine years ago when the amount of outstanding loans was this high.
“Lenders have more tools than they ever have had,” Reid said. “Just think about nine or 10 years ago and how far the Internet has come. That digital era is in the making right now. Now, I think the lenders can get more aggressive and still be smart about it. They have a lot more warning behind them. All the way around, we’re just more educated. I think we’re much more seasoned now having gone through the last five, six years.”
So when should an alarm sound, prompting a tightening of underwriting or a general pull-back in originations? Reid contends it varies on the strategy a finance company has.
“It really depends on your model. Too much for a prime lender might not be for a subprime lender who takes on quite a bit of risk,” Reid said. “I think right now the focus is — and it’s always a healthy discussion — what is the right level of risk. I think it’s more important to understand what risk you are taking. Because at a time when delinquency numbers start trending upward, it’s very tough to mitigate that. You can control the kind of paper you put on, but it’s really tough to control the paper you have. So you want to stay proactive and ahead of that. I think it’s OK to take on some extra risk, and we’re seeing that with some of the subprime paper, but lenders really need to make sure it fits their model.”