Deformations On The Dealer Lots: How The Fed's ZIRP Is Fueling The Next Subprime Bust

On any given day, Janet Yellen is busy squinting at 19 essentially meaningless labor market graphs on her "dashboard", apparently looking for evidence that ZIRP is working. Well, after 71 months of zero money market rates----an unprecedented financial absurdity----there are plenty of footprints dotting the financial landscape.

But they have nothing to do with sustainable jobs. Instead, ZIRP has fueled myriad financial bubbles and speculations owing to the desperate scramble for "yield" that it has elicited among traders and money managers. Indeed, the financial system is literally booby-trapped with accidents waiting to happen owing to the vast mispricings and bloated valuations that have been generated by the Fed's free money.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the subprime auto loan sector. That's where Wall Street speculators have organized fly-by-night lenders who make predatory 20% interest rate loans at 115% of the vehicle's value to consumers who are essentially one paycheck away from default.

This $120 billion subprime auto paper machine is now driving millions of transactions which are recorded as auto "sales", but, in fact, are more in the nature of short-term "loaners" destined for the repo man. So here's the thing: In an honest free market none of these born again pawnshops would even exist; nor would there be a market for out-of-this-world junk paper backed by 115% LTV/75-month/20% rate loans to consumers who cannot afford them.

Indeed, instead of the BLS concocted "quit rate" and other such aggregated data noise about the nation's massive, fragmented, dynamic and complicated complex of thousands of local and sectoral labor markets---- about which the Fed can and should do nothing----Yellen might be gazing at the $1.6 billion in bids attracted earlier this year by Prestige Financial Services of Utah. That occurred in the junk bond market, which the Fed does heavily impact, and could not have possibly happened in the absence of ZIRP.

In a word, the $390 million offering was 4X oversubscribed--even though the bonds were  issued by a newly minted financial conduit that has no operating history; and its only assets are piles of 20% interest rate loans made to people who have been in bankruptcy!

“Investors, seeking a higher return when interest rates are low, recently flocked to buy a bond issue from Prestige Financial Services of Utah. Orders to invest in the $390 million debt deal were four times greater than the amount of available securities.

What is backing many of these securities? Auto loans made to people who have been in bankruptcy.

An affiliate of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, Prestige specializes in making the loans to people in bankruptcy, packaging them into securities and then selling them to investors.

“It’s been a hot space,” Richard L. Hyde, the firm’s chief operating officer, said during an interview in March. Investors are betting on risky borrowers. The average interest rate on loans bundled into Prestige’s latest offering, for example, is 18.6 percent, up slightly from a similar offering rolled out a year earlier…. To meet that rising demand, Wall Street snatches up more and more loans to package into the complex investments.” (NYT)

Now the purpose of the financial meltdown in 2008 was to purge the market of exactly this kind of dodgy lending by predators like Prestige Financial Services. And initially that's exactly what happened.

As shown below, the subprime market shrunk from more than $125 billion at the bubble peak in 2007 to only about $60 billion by 2009. Market discipline was finally being brought to bear in this dodgy corner of the junk credit market and sketchy loan books were being drastically liquidated. That in turn meant that the US auto market was being downsized to a more sustainable level of demand based on consumer incomes, not unrepayable debt.

But the cleansing action didn't last long. The Fed's lunatic ZIRP policy steadily forced more and more institutional bond managers, pension funds, insurance companies and retail mutual fund investors desperate for yield into junk ABS paper. So as shown below, the subprime auto sector---something which should exist only on the fringe of the financial markets, if at all---came roaring back. At the end of 2013, it had re-attained the bubble peaks of 2007, and by the end of this year will be at all-time highs.

Indeed, from the low point in early 2010, the subprime market has increased by more than 100% or double the rate of growth in prime auto loans, which have also expanded at a heady pace (40%) relative to the tepid growth of consumer incomes (12%) during the period. Stated differently, the auto sector is being pushed back into an unsustainable boom based on the very same bubble finance distortions that sent the entire industry---led by GM, Chrysler, Delphi---into the calamitous bankruptcies of 2008-2009.

It is only a matter of time before the boom in auto junk implodes under the pressure of rising default rates. As in every prior junk bond cycle, the Wall Street purveyors of this crappy paper have trotted out data to show that default rates are modest and that 20% interest rates being paid by the underlying borrowers can cover a multitude of sins.

But that is an illusion stemming from the confluence of two factors. First, the renewed boom in subprime auto loans is only a few years old. This means that the loans are not yet seasoned and that the true loss rate is being badly obfuscated by a rising denominator (total loans outstanding) and an understated numerator (reported defaults to date).

This transient illusion of low default rates has appeared in each of the three boom-and-bust cycles that have afflicted the junk market since it first appeared in the late 1980s.  And in the case of auto loans, the lag effect in default rates is especially severe because the used cars and low-end new cars that are financed for 5-8 years terms in the sub-prime market suffer accelerating depreciation of value as vehicles age.

Secondly, we are in the sixth year of this so-called recovery, but the Fed has not banished the business cycle. So there will be another job market dislocation in the not too distant future, meaning that subprime borrowers living from paycheck to paycheck will experience a surge of defaults. And in the process, auto sales will plunge, dealer inventories will be liquidated, auto production will be curtailed and Janet Yellen's dashboard will be suddenly covered with arrows heading in the wrong direction.

And that's not the half of it. Financial distortions and deformations from the Fed's free money cascade through innumerable channels of the financial system. For instance, the same mis-priced debt that fuels subprime auto lenders is also used to fund auto leases.

Accordingly, there has been a massive surge in cheap leases because projected "residuals" (i.e. recovery value at expiration) are being over-estimated (no recession ever again) and the carry cost of leased vehicle portfolios has been made dirt cheap by the Fed's financial repression. Not surprisingly, the share of new vehicle sales accounted for by leases is at an all-time high of 25%.

But there is a huge problem lurking just around the corner. The number of expiring leases will double during the next three years, meaning that the used car market will be flooded with vehicles. In turn, that will drive down used car prices and cause sub-prime borrowers to be pushed even deeper underwater on their loans. In due course, they will consequently default at even higher rates than would otherwise occur; and the losses after the repo man recovers the vehicles will be proportionately larger, as well.

The flip side is that the number of cars returning from leases is expected to more than double from about 1.7 million last year to nearly 3.5 million in 2017, according to Manheim, the company that runs most of the auctions where dealers sell those off-lease vehicles

In short, there is a reason why capitalism requires honest price discovery in financial markets. Without it, false signals quickly flow through the real economy, causing booms and busts that are not an inherent result of the free market but the artificial and destructive consequence of central bank intervention and manipulation.

Thus, the primitive and destructive game of monetary central planning pursued by our monetary politburo is particularly exposed by the impending disaster in the auto junk market. That is to say, the labor market is a trailing indicator and Yellen and her band of money printers are watching it, as it were, in the rearview mirror.

Instead, they might scroll-up on their dashboards the attached Bloomberg story. At least they could not plead that the next financial meltdown arrived mysteriously on a comet from outer space.

By Sarah Mulholland at Bloomberg News

The booming market for securities backed by subprime car loans is riskier than their ratings imply, say two of the biggest assessors of bond credit quality.

Moody’s Investors Service (MCO) and Fitch Ratings analysts said in interviews that the grades their competitors have assigned to a crop of new issuers -- most of which are backed by private-equity firms -- are too high. The lenders lack a track record in the bond market proving their underwriting acumen and ability to handle the specialized task of collecting on soured debt during a downturn, according to the analysts.

Half the issuers tracked by Standard & Poor’s hadn’t sold bonds before 2010, and concern is mounting that growth in the market for securities backed by car loans to people with poor credit poses a risk to the whole auto industry. Wall Street banks have arranged $20.6 billion of the deals this year, up from $8.6 billion in 2010, according to Barclays Plc.

Moody’s and Fitch, which are trying to rebuild their reputations after being blamed for fueling the credit crisis with inflated mortgage-bond ratings, say they haven’t assigned grades to the new issuers’ debt because they would give them lower rankings than those bestowed by S&P, Kroll Bond Rating Agency Inc. and DBRS Ltd. Those firms say they assess securities on an individual basis.

“We would be more than happy to rate them,” but it “might not be the rating they’re looking for,” said Mack Caldwell, an analyst at New York-based Moody’s.

Opinion Diversity

Fitch said in a September report it would decline to grade some of the new deals, or cap its ranking on others at single-A, below the grades given out by competitors.

“DBRS reviews auto ABS deals on a case-by-case basis as it does for all asset classes,” Chuck Weilamann, head of U.S. asset-backed securities at Toronto-based DBRS, said in an e-mailed statement. “We do not artificially place any caps or floors on any ratings ahead of a review, whether it be for a new or frequent issuer of debt.”

The market benefits from a diversity of opinions on credit risk, said April Kabahar, a spokeswoman for S&P. The New York-based rating firm declines to rate companies with short operating histories or weak operations and has ratings caps for others, she said.

Kroll “reviews the experience and capabilities of the company’s management team, its operational capabilities and business model in addition to the characteristics and performance of their loan portfolio,” Rosemary Kelley, a managing director at Kroll, said in an e-mailed statement.

Crisis Performance

The subprime-auto business has exploded as bond buyers pile into securities offering yields that are about double those on similar debt tied to the most creditworthy borrowers. That’s particularly enticing amid six years of near-zero interest rates from the Federal Reserve.

Private-equity firms have also poured cash into the industry during the last several years, attracted by its performance during the recession and the chance to make loans with interest rates as high as 20 percent. U.S. households continued to make car payments even when they defaulted on their mortgages during the crisis, according to Moody’s.

The firms have seized on cheap funding in the bond market, resulting in profit margins that Moody’s estimated in 2012 are about 12 percent.

The boom in easy financing is helping fuel the fastest pace of car sales in eight years and has drawn scrutiny from the U.S. government as underwriting standards decline amid increased competition from lenders.

Defaults Climb

The default rate has been rising for three years, reaching 13 percent in September, exceeding the pre-crisis range of 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Wells Fargo & Co.

A loss of confidence at one of the smaller companies could lead to an industrywide funding crunch as bondholders flee, according to Dave Goodson, the head of securitized products at Voya Investment Management, which oversees $213 billion.

“As a sector, you’re beholden to your weakest link,” Goodson said in a phone interview. If one lender buckles under the pressure, he said, “people would start to hit the exits.”

Many of the new companies are focusing on customers with the lowest credit scores or no history at all. The increase in such loans, characterized as deep subprime, is pushing losses on debt underlying asset-backed bonds higher, according to Wells Fargo.

Investors started differentiating more between issuers in the second half of this year, demanding additional compensation to hold bonds from companies deemed riskier, Wells Fargo analysts led by John McElravey said in a report last month.

Loan Losses

J.D. Byrider, a used-car dealer that started as a franchise operator in 1979, was bought by private-equity firm Altamont Capital Partners in 2011. It began selling bonds backed by its subprime auto loans in 2012, and has since raised $421 million in the debt market.

Losses on the loans are rising faster than S&P predicted. When J.D. Byrider issued $121.4 million of securities in May 2013, the rater forecast losses of 22.25 percent. S&P has since boosted that to 26.25 percent, according to a September report.

S&P, which ranked most of the debt AA, said it’s not planning on lowering its grades because there’s adequate protection for bondholders from losses. In September, S&P even raised the rankings on a $28 million portion of the deal for this reason.

RBS Recommendation

Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc underwrote its 2013 offering, while Deutsche Bank AG managed a sale earlier this year.

“We did not consider Moody’s or Fitch, because we were guided by RBS and DB to S&P and DBRS/Kroll,” Linda Jackson, a spokeswoman for J.D. Byrider, said in an e-mailed statement.

Amanda Williams, a spokeswoman for Deutsche Bank, and Sarah Lukashok of RBS, declined to comment.

“We are aware of S&P’s revised loss expectations” on the 2013 transaction, Jackson said. The Indianapolis-based company is focusing on producing “performance that betters S&P’s latest loss estimates,” she said.

J.D. Byrider is just one of a crop of private-equity owned new entrants to the $178.2 billion market for bonds tied to car loans. Blackstone Group LP (BX), the world’s largest private-equity company, acquired Irving, Texas-based Exeter Finance Corp. in 2011. That same year, Perella Weinberg Partners partnered with CarFinance Capital LLC after creating Flagship Credit Acceptance LLC in 2010.

Lax Underwriting

The landscape is similar to the subprime-auto lending environment during the early- to mid-1990s, when overheated competition led to lax underwriting and unexpectedly high losses that put many smaller lenders out of business, Moody’s said in June 2012 report. Leading up to the previous bust, the number of subprime lenders ballooned as the securitization market enabled companies to grow too rapidly, according to Moody’s.

“If today’s subprime-auto lending market were to deteriorate as it did back then, investors could suffer comparable or greater losses,” Moody’s analysts Peter McNally and Joseph Snailer said in the report.

Top-ranked securities linked to subprime auto loans are yielding 50 basis points more than benchmark interest rates, about double the spread investors demand to own similar debt backed by loans to borrowers with good credit, Wells Fargo data show.

Operational risks are also especially high for subprime-auto asset-backed bonds issued by inexperienced lenders with limited financial resources, according to Moody’s. The lenders may not be prepared to service a large volume of soured loans, according to the rater.

Domino Risk

The subprime-auto business is exposed to domino risk because financial difficulties at one lender may quickly spread to others, Fitch analysts led by John Bella and Kevin Duignan said in September report. Private-equity firms and banks may withdraw funding simultaneously under that scenario, they said.

Underwriting standards on subprime auto loans have been declining since 2012, leading to the higher-than-expected losses on some transactions, according to S&P. Lenders are enabling buyers to borrow more relative to the cost of a car. The average loan-to-value ratio, or LTV, stood at 115 through September, compared with 112 percent in 2010, S&P said in a report that month.

Longer loan terms, which make monthly payments smaller, are another sign of slackening standards. The 72-month loan is the most common term, though terms as long as 75 months are showing up in 2014 deals, according to S&P.

Unpredictable Loans

“As subprime-auto loan credit quality has weakened and collateral losses have risen, our loss projections for these subprime auto loan ABS transactions have increased resulting in higher credit support,” said S&P’s Kabahar.

S&P increased the average credit enhancement on debt rated AAA to 40.56 percent as of June from 36.1 percent in 2011. That means deals would have to suffer losses greater than 40.56 percent for holders of the AAA rated slice to be affected.

Performance could still get weaker given the competitiveness of the industry and the entrance of rapidly expanding newcomers, S&P said in its September report. The firm hasn’t cut the ratings on any deals sold since the crisis, and doesn’t expect to in the near-term.

While bondholders have yet to lose money in this cycle, the unforeseen jump in losses highlights the unpredictability of lending to borrowers with bad credit histories, or none at all.

“Losses on subprime auto loans are vulnerable to large swings even under moderate economic stress,” Fitch said in its September report.


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