Loaning money at high rates to people who may not be able to repay is a recipe for disaster, as the housing bubble demonstrated. Delinquencies on subprime car loans that have been bundled into bonds have already risen to 4.7 percent, the highest rate since 2010.
What’s more, automakers have been goosing sales by offering ever-longer loans with lower monthly payments, pushing leases that count as “sales,” and dumping their sedans onto rental car companies and other bulk buyers. Last year, these low-margin fleet sales rose more than 6 percent — helping companies meet the federal goal for overall fuel economy in spite of growing light-truck sales.
Despite these danger signs, the auto industry can well avoid another meltdown — if it positions itself for the economic headwinds, and for the technological change that stands to radically reshape the car business.