Borrowers are behind in their auto loan payments in numbers not seen since delinquencies peaked at the end of 2010, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The number of delinquent loans follows a trend of steady increases since 2011 and has risen to the highest level in the 19-year history of the bank’s loan origination data.
More than 7 million Americans were 90 or more days behind on their car loans at the end of last year, 1 million more than eight years ago, according to a report from the bank. That’s a potential sign of trouble for the auto industry and perhaps the broader economy.
The New York Fed reported that auto loan delinquency rates slowly have been worsening, even though borrowers with prime credit make up an increasing percentage of the loans. The 90-day delinquency rate at the end of 2018 was 2.4%, up from a low of 1.5% in 2012, the bank reported. Also, delinquencies by people under 30 are rising sharply, the report said.
But economists and auto industry analysts say they aren’t sounding an alarm yet. The number is higher largely because there are far more auto loans out there as sales grew since the financial crisis, peaking at 17.5 million in 2016. The $584 billion borrowed to buy new autos last year was the highest in the 19-year history of loan and lease origination data, according to the report.
Other signs still point to a strong economy and auto sales that will continue to hover just under 17 million per year for the near term.
“I think it’s a little too soon to say that the sky is falling, but it’s time to look up and double check to make sure nothing is about to hit you on the head,” said Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive.
U.S. consumers have about $1.27 trillion worth of auto debt, which is less than 10% of the total consumer borrowing tracked by the New York Fed. Mortgages and student loans are both larger categories than auto debt.
The jump in unpaid auto loans is a worrying sign for low-income Americans, though not necessarily a sign that an economic downturn is near. “The substantial and growing number of distressed borrowers suggests that not all Americans have benefited from the strong labor market and warrants continued monitoring and analysis of this sector,” researchers at the New York Fed concluded in a blog post.