Auto loan defaults soaring

In 2016, $26 billion of subprime car bonds were sold

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It’s classic subprime: hasty loans, rapid defaults and, at times, outright fraud.

Only this isn’t the housing market circa 2007. It’s the auto industry circa 2017.

A decade after the mortgage debacle, the financial industry has embraced another type of subprime debt — auto loans. And as with last time, the risks are spreading as they’re bundled into securities for investors worldwide.

Subprime car loans have been around for ages, and no one is suggesting they’ll unleash the next crisis. But since the Great Recession, business has exploded.

In 2009, $2.5 billion of new subprime auto bonds were sold. In 2016, $26 billion were, topping average pre-crisis levels, according to Wells Fargo.

Few things capture this phenomenon like the partnership between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Banco Santander. Since 2013, as U.S. car sales soared, the two have built one of the industry’s most powerful subprime machines.

Details of that relationship, pieced together from court documents, regulatory filings and interviews with industry insiders, lay bare some of the excesses of today’s subprime auto boom. Wall Street has rewarded lax lending standards that let people get loans without anyone verifying incomes or job histories.

For example, Santander recently vetted incomes on fewer than one out of every 10 loans packaged into $1 billion of bonds, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The largest portion were for Chrysler vehicles.

Some of their dealers, meantime, gamed the loan application process so low-income borrowers could drive off in new cars, state prosecutors said in court documents.

Through it all, Wall Street’s appetite for high-yield investments has kept the loans — and the bonds — coming. Santander said it has cut ties with hundreds of dealerships that were pushing unsound loans, some of which defaulted as soon as the first payment.

At the same time, Santander plans to increase control over its U.S. subprime auto unit, Santander Consumer USA Holdings Inc., people familiar with the matter said.

Santander, subpoenaed or questioned by a group of about 30 states regarding its auto loan underwriting and securitization activities, declined to comment on “active legal matters.” In May, Santander agreed to pay $26 million to settle allegations brought by Delaware and Massachusetts as part of ongoing investigations into the auto industry’s lending practices.

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