Analyzing why private equity wants back in non-prime market


The market fundamentals in non-prime are signaling positive. A strong economy and low unemployment are contributing to stabilization in consumer credit scores. Auto defaults are at the lowest point with one full quarter of improvements under the belt.

There continue to be new auto bond issuances, and the spreads on these lowest-rated of these securities are tightening. Competition in the secondary market for non-prime portfolios is high, thanks to the portfolio quality of the underlying assets holding up.

By many measures beyond just these, the non-prime market is showing signs of a change in trend from bear to bull. Whereas private equity (PE) interest was ice cold, things are starting to thaw. Now PE wants back in. But, why now, and why do they want back in?

Let’s take a walk down memory lane

Competition for deals amongst private equity firms for unsecured lending opportunities for the past few years has grown more and more intense. In the prior market cycle just following the Great Recession, Private Equity had excess un-deployed capital that was intended for residential real estate. They pivoted their focus to high-yield, non-prime auto loans.

But, private equity returns in non-prime auto weren’t there. And, the exit wasn’t there either. So, they took their lumps and pivoted again, this time to unsecured assets like financing elective surgery and jewelry purchases. They also pivoted their focus to fintech, placing bets on disruption, and that big banks will adopt this tech. To private equity, fintech offers an exit path more like that of the subprime bureaus, where each major bureau has acquired at least one of these “big data / alternative bureau” providers.

Joel Kennedy

The private equity bets on unsecured, and fintech have been good ones. So, why do they want back in on auto?

This time it will be different 

The disruptive nature of fintech is the reason is why. Fintech is completely restructuring how consumers and auto finance companies engage. Fintech has commoditized the application process, the process to evaluate risk, and how customers are serviced. Whereas in the prior market cycle, PE would take equity position in a “soup to nuts” non-prime operations, now they are focusing more on the assets and balance sheet financing. The value of the traditional auto finance company has been morphed from one that has a superior scorecard, or collection process, PE knows that Fintech has largely outsourced and commoditized what were strategic assets. Why build your own custom loan origination or loan servicing system when myriad outsourced options exist? And, why re-invent the wheel? One must look no further than what Uber did to the value of a NY Taxi medallion, and you will see what they are seeing.

The “Amazonification” of financial services businesses is what fintech is all about.

Let’s hear it directly from the source

And who better to hear it from than from the PE folks themselves? Some recent conversations with PE firms and the investment bankers that work directly with them provide us some valuable insight as to why this next cycle will be different. It will be different because of their shift to unsecured options for higher yield (as a suitable replacement to auto), but more importantly due to Fintech disruption. What constitutes itself as an asset of a financial services company is different than just a few years ago. Heck, what comprises what we now call a financial services company is different than a few years back.

Let’s look at the top three themes from these conversations:

1. Balance sheet

PE interest is squarely on the balance sheet and resulting deal structures will continue to show it. Larger PE firms are looking to be a senior secured lender, with capital deployments north of $40 million — directly into collateral.

Loan originators that could use more balance sheet to originate more can benefit from PE investment. And, they can also be effective as a capital bridge to securitizations — as discussed before, a very healthy and stable market.

2. Fintech

Fintech firms trade on a multiple of revenues, while finance companies trade on a multiple of earnings. And, a good fintech solution done right can provide value to small finance companies and big banks, which provides a lot of click revenue. So, this is just a case of investing money into something that will return more money.

Not to be discounted is the actual value of the fintech being created and made available to the non-prime finance community. Take for example a small, regional finance company that just 10 years ago would be operating on spreadsheets and a small IT footprint. That same company can operate in a cost-efficient, cloud-based environment, and utilize AI-based solutions that root out fraud, improve credit selection, drive behavioral scoring — all on subscription or a per-click basis. 

3. Confidence in outsourced servicers

Without confidence in outsourced servicers, PE would not be diving back into the non-prime asset class. The market for secondary whole loan trades has been hot and is not cooling down thanks to increasing interest from PE investors. And, that confidence is bolstered by a few key points:

• Outsourced servicers are complex; many are servicers of their own debt that rent out their additional capacity, and the result is a more stable place to park your portfolio

• Outsourced incentives are changing; we are hearing more and more about servicers putting “skin” in the game and taking compensation that is tied to targets shared with the portfolio owner

• What makes an outsourced servicer is less about geography, and more about supplementing specific skill sets, and this is providing cost savings while improving portfolio performance

• Outsourced servicers can deploy technology, training, and analytics in ways that benefit multiple companies in much the same way that Fintech can disrupt

• A more sympathetic Consumer Financial Protection Bureau changes the outlook as well

The PE firms interviewed agreed that their confidence in outsourced servicers is an enabler to giving them the confidence to get more aggressive on deploying their capital into auto assets and knowing that the results will be on target.

The democratization of auto finance

The retail car sales process is not what it used to be. You can find your car online and pick it up from a vending machine. Or, you can use your car as a taxi. Or, you can subscribe to a car service. Or, you can just rent a bike or a scooter. It is no longer about “car ownership.” It’s about mobility. The disruption of the retail car model and the democratization of mobility is in full swing.

The democratization of auto finance is just getting started. And increased PE interest has a track record of begetting more PE interest. Last time around, PE took some lumps along with the finance companies that they invested in. There were no winners. This time around the game board is set up a bit differently. Finance companies will win this time around if they can effectively utilize PE capital in its updated format. Fintech companies will continue to win, as the early cloud-based, and big-data companies already have. Finally, outsourced servicers will win by becoming a more mainstream and standard option that will see increasing demand as more and more PE firms choose to engage them.

Joel Kennedy is a director with Spinnaker Consulting Group. He has a passion for growing and improving auto finance ecosystem. He has more than 23 years of experience helping big banks down to start-up finance companies to build, grow, improve, and repeat. He can be reached at (240) 308-2169 or