Lousy Credit? Need a Car Loan? No Problem!

New car loan
New car loan

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis still plagues would-be borrowers. Banks are still being pretty stingy about extending credit these days. Credit cards aren't nearly as easy to get as they were a few years ago. And ordinary folks are finding that only borrowers with high credit scores are being considered for a mortgage.

But there's one big exception, and it may be having a big effect on the economy: auto loans.

U.S. auto sales haven't yet returned to their pre-recession highs, but they've been surprisingly strong. Total sales of "light vehicles" -- cars, pickups, and SUVs -- were up 14.8% in the first half of 2012, and they're still picking up steam.

But what's driving it? After all, unemployment remains high, and many people who are employed have seen their earnings decline. Lots of folks have seen their credit ratings dented. It can't be easy for all those people to be buying new cars, can it?

Maybe it can be that easy for those with roughed-up credit to buy a car.

Subprime Loans Driving Auto Sales

It turns out that auto lending is one place where the banks are willing to be a little loose -- maybe even more than a little relaxed about lending standards.

New auto loans from banks totaled $47.5 billion in the first quarter of 2012. According to credit bureau Equifax, that's a seven-year high. Automotive finance companies added another $52.5 billion, says Equifax, up 49% from three years ago.

A lot of those loans are subprime loans.

A recent report from financial data firm Experian shows that the percentage of new auto loans going to subprime borrowers -- people with credit scores below about 680 -- has increased significantly in the last year, just as auto sales have taken off.

Some automakers are benefiting more from this than others. The Detroit News reported recently that Chrysler, whose sales were up a whopping 30% in the first half of 2012, has a special relationship with an arm of Spanish bank Santander (SAN) that specializes in subprime lending. That, experts say, has probably been a key contributor to Chrysler's recent success.

Is It Time to Worry?

Not necessarily. For one thing, default rates on auto loans are lower than they have been in years -- even as the percentage of loans going to subprime borrowers has risen. And defaults on auto loans tend to be less common than defaults on mortgages in general, probably because it's so easy for a lender to repossess a car -- and so hard for many people to get by without one.

And finally, this rise in subprime lending may just be a feature of the times we live in.

Many people had top-notch credit for years but because of the tough economy, have seen their credit dinged by unavoidable circumstances. Now that they're back on their feet, those people are probably still pretty good candidates for a loan. If banks are now starting to see that, it's probably a good thing.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors and have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford.