A record seven million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported Tuesday, even more than during the wake of the financial crisis era.

Economists warn this is a red flag. Despite the strong economy and low unemployment rate, many Americans are struggling to pay their bills.

"The substantial and growing number of distressed borrowers suggests that not all Americans have benefited from the strong labour market," economists at the New York Fed wrote in a blog post.

A car loan is typically the first payment people make because a vehicle is critical to get to work and someone can live in a car if all else fails. When car loan delinquencies rise, it's a sign of significant duress among low-income and working class Americans.

Advertisement

"Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, "said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. "If you don't have a car, you can't get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent."

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places.

The New York Fed said there were over a million more "troubled borrowers" at the end of 2018 than there were in 2010, when unemployment hit 10 per cent and the auto loan delinquency rate peaked. Today unemployment is 4 per cent and many more Americans have jobs now, yet a significant number of people still can't pay their car loan.

Most of the people who are behind on their bills have low credit scores and are under age 30, suggesting that young people are having a difficult time paying for their cars and their student loans at the same time.

Auto loans surged in the past several years as car sales kept growing year after year, hitting a record high in 2016 of 17.5 million vehicles sold in the United States. Overall, many borrowers have strong credit scores and continue to repay their loans, but the auto industry has suffered from high defaults among so-called "sub prime" borrowers with credit scores under 620 on an 800-point scale.

The share of auto loan borrowers who were three months behind on their payments peaked at 5.3 per cent in late 2010. The share is slightly lower now - 4.5 per cent - because the total number of borrowers has risen so much in the past several years. Still, economists are concerned that the rate has been climbing steadily since 2016 even though unemployment fell the lowest level in almost half a century and that the number of people impacted is far greater now.

Experts warn Americans to be careful where they get their auto loan. Traditional banks and credit unions have much smaller default rates than so-called "auto finance" companies such as the "buy here, pay here" places on some car lots.

Fewer than 1 per cent of auto loans issued by credit unions are 90 days or more late compared to 6.5 per cent of loans issued by auto finance companies.

Advertisement

"The number one piece of advice I have is to not get your financing from a car dealership," said Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and former special adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Shop separately for the vehicle and the financing. Go to a credit union or community bank to get a low-cost loan."

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be savvier about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

"Predatory lending practices and a lack of real transportation options leave many households trapped in debt with few ways out," said Faye Park, president of the liberal US Public Interest Research Group.

Repossessing a car is also a quicker process thanks to technology and the laws in many states. Some cars are installed with devices that prevent the car from turning on if someone misses a payment. It has also become easier to track license plates and geo-locate a car to repossess it.

"It's a lot easier to repossess a vehicle than to foreclose on a home," said Taiano.

- Washington Post